De Facto Partition Takes Hold in Iraq

The Associated Press
Sunday, December 3, 2006; 7:07 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For months, the Waheed brothers steadfastly endured the killings raging around them in their mainly Sunni district, staying put as fellow Shiites packed up and left.

Finally, a death threat persuaded Majed and Mondhir Hatem Waheed to leave the neighborhood of Dora where they grew up and, together with their wives and children, join 24 relatives in an uncle's house in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr city district.

"At least, we are safe," 25-year-old Mondhir Hatem Waheed said.

In the 43 months since Saddam Hussein's ouster, entire Iraqi provinces have become virtually off-limits to one or another sect, mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods are slowly disappearing, and a Kurdish region in the north appears to have all but seceded.

In many ways, Iraq is breaking up, though not in a way in which a well-defined boundary could be established to ensure peace. It is happening amid a debate on whether partitioning this ethnically and religiously diverse nation could provide a way out of the growing sectarian violence tearing it apart.

The debate on partitioning Iraq has touched on such sensitive issues as the distribution of the country's oil wealth and how far plans for a federal system of government should go. Also at the forefront is the likely influence of neighboring powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria should the country be carved into Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab mini-states.

Embittered by the loss of their dominance under Saddam and worried they may be left isolated and bereft of resources in Iraq's mostly arid central and western parts, Sunni Arabs have warned that federalism will lead to the breakup of the country.

"I believe some Kurds and some (Shiite) Arabs in the south have been promoting federalism to pave the way for the larger goal of dividing Iraq," said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a senior member of the National Dialogue Front, a Sunni Arab political party.

"This catastrophic sectarian tension is only a step to justify partition," he added.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a senior Shiite politician who is federalism's chief advocate in Iraq, sought to allay these fears on a visit last week to neighboring Jordan, which is mostly Sunni.

"We reject any notion of partitioning Iraq," he said Saturday. "The federalism that Iraqis have accepted ... will not be built on sectarian basis."

But sectarian bloodshed has skyrocketed since the Feb. 22 bombing of a key Shiite shrine north of Baghdad that sparked retaliatory attacks. The numbers are staggering.

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