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    Middle East
     Aug 11, 2006
Iraq's downward spiral toward partition
By Ehsan Ahrari

There are no magnanimous winners in the Middle East. The Iraqi Shi'ites are only proving that point by demanding the partition of that country, now that they constitute the dominant ruling group.

If such a demand comes close to reality, the world will witness a disaster of wider magnitude than that which is occurring now. A number of regional players would be involved, especially if US forces were to leave before Iraq is really partitioned.

In the midst of the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq, the Shi'ites have revived their discussion of "remaking" that country through partition. That aspiration lay dormant from the beginning of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. At first, the chief proponents were the Iraqi Kurds, who envisaged the notion of autonomy in northern Iraq as a precursor for an independent state. Saddam was only

too aware of those Kurdish aspirations. That was just another reason that he singled out that group for his brutal treatment.

The Shi'ites were intrigued about the possibility of autonomy beginning in 2005, when there were some public discussions about such an option. One can fully understand why the Shi'ites were attracted to the idea by looking at the distribution of oil reserves in that country. The northern and southern parts of Iraq contain most of its oil reserves, whereas the Sunni-dominated central region is nearly devoid of that natural resource.

Of course, the Kurds were more open about their desire not only for autonomy, but also for controlling the sale of oil from the northern Iraqi reserves. In the chaotic election-related environment in 2005, the Shi'ites and the Kurds both openly discussed the notion of federalism, which was envisaged as a tool for making the two groups owners of oil revenues in their respective regions.

The Sunni groups were fully aware of the real aspirations of the Kurds, even during Saddam's rule, but they became even more convinced of the intentions of the Shi'ites in the post-Saddam era. That is precisely why the Sunnis continued to manifest their utter disgust over any suggestions for federalism.

They knew that it would leave them at the mercy of the Shi'ites and the Kurds. However, the principle "majority rule" enabled the Shi'ites and the Kurds to include in the Iraqi constitution the option of devolution, despite the fact that Sunnis uniformly opposed it.

The leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abdel Aziz Hakim, is proposing the creation of an entity comprising nine southern provinces of Iraq, which also contain 60% of that country's oil reserves. Even though this plan is not being overtly presented as a part of partitioning Iraq, the Sunni groups envisage it as a covert endeavor of the dominant Shi'ite groups eventually to achieve just that.

At least for now, the Shi'ite leaders are basing their demands for federalism and partition on the fact that the ever-escalating bloodshed stemming from the sectarian violence has made it virtually impossible for the Shi'ites and the Sunnis to live together in peace. Whether that is true or not, it is being promoted, at least by most Shi'ites, as a justification to think publicly about an option that they have been thinking and talking about among their own ranks for quite a while.

The Kurds are being coy on the subject for the time being. Even though it has remained undeclared, the Kurdish strategy seems to go along the following lines: They would let the Shi'ite leaders do all the noisy and dirty work in popularizing that objective among their followers. Once it edged toward reality, the Kurds would jump on the "partition bandwagon" to fulfill their own aspiration of having an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurdish leaders know how sensitive - indeed, paranoiac - the Turkish government has been about any prospect of Kurdish independence because it would trigger similar demands among the Kurds living inside Turkey. However, if the potential partition of Iraq were to come from Shi'ite demands, the Kurds hope that the partition would become more palatable to the Turks.

An important question at this point is whether the Shi'ites are using the threat of partition as a tactic for scaring the Sunnis into de-escalating the level of sectarian violence, or are they serious about it?

In all likelihood, the Shi'ites might be making public their real intentions. They know they have to institutionalize their political gains and power of the post-Saddam era while the United States remains in Iraq. Once it gets out, the Shi'ites may be thinking that their gains might be reversed or unraveled.

However, a potential partition of Iraq might create a domino effect in the region. Whether such a scenario would materialize or not is not important. The fact that a number of actors in the region think it might materialize is.

The administration of US President George W Bush would not support the partitioning of Iraq. However, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who is also a ranking member of the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, has publicly advocated that option. Consequently, there is likelihood that, as the presidential election of 2008 approaches, the Biden suggestion might become part of the official platform of the Democratic Party. Biden is also considered a potential candidate to run for president in 2008.

From the vantage point of the domestic politics of Iraq, it would only lead to even further violence and mayhem. The Sunni groups - especially those who are now participating in the national-unity government - might decide that their best strategy is to support the insurgency.

However, a brutal reality about Iraq is that anything other than the continuance of government under the national-unity government, with Iraq as a unified country, would be disastrous. Even though the national-unity government is currently facing a huge amount of hardship, there is always that hope that, as an elected body, it will eventually succeed in making Iraq a peaceful and stable place with its current borders remaining intact.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari@cox.net or stratparadigms@yahoo.com. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

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Iraq's Shi'ites going their own way (Aug 8, '06)

US sidelined in Iraq's sectarian war (Jul 27, '06)


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