By HAMZA HENDAWI
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.
The U.N. says violence now claims up to 100 Iraqi lives daily. A total of 1.6 million people have been displaced inside Iraq and a similar number have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion. Estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed since 2003 range from 50,000 to 600,000.
After talks in Jordan on Thursday, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said they rejected a partition, a course of action some candidates in last month's U.S. congressional elections floated in their campaigns as one way to stabilize Iraq and allow a drawdown on U.S. troops deployed here to begin.
"The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want, and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence," Bush said Thursday.
Partitioning Iraq as a solution to its deep predicament has never found much public support in Iraq. It is not expected to be among recommendations made in a U.S. bipartisan commission report on policy options in Iraq, which is due out Wednesday.
But there seems to be very little at the moment that Bush, al-Maliki or the 140,000 American troops and their Iraqi allies can do to stop Iraq's gradual slide into de facto partition, with Iraqis like the Waheed brothers fleeing their neighborhoods and bodies of apparent victims of sectarian death squads turning up by the dozens every day.
As Baghdad's mixed districts slowly disappear, the Tigris River is emerging as an unofficial barrier in the capital, flowing between a mostly Shiite eastern bank and a mainly Sunni western side.
It is not uncommon now for residents, especially men and boys of fighting age, to refuse to take jobs in areas dominated by members of one of the two sects. People who do travel through different areas often carry fake IDs to hide any hint of their sect, which is often reflected in names.
Outside the capital, Shiites and Kurds rarely venture into the Sunni-dominted Anbar province west of the capital, a bastion of Iraq's insurgency. In the volatile and largely Sunni provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala, north and northeast of Baghdad, some areas are deemed too dangerous for members of the other sect to go.
Sunni Arabs stay away from the mainly Shiite south of Iraq, where militias linked to Shiite political parties are active or virtually in control of some areas.
To the north, the 15-year-old autonomous Kurdish region has begun to show signs of independence. Authorities there enforce rigid security regulations for non-Kurdish Iraqi visitors that are more suited for foreigners than citizens of the same country.
These include a security interview on arrival and registering with police when taking up residence or finding employment. Visitors traveling by road are stopped at three checkpoints before entering Kurdistan.
Amr Hamzawi, a Middle East expert at Carnegie Endowments, a Washington think tank, says partitioning could be a solution to Iraq's problems, noting the country was cobbled together from three separate Ottoman provinces barely a century ago.
"If the violence continues at this level, it could take between two and four years for Iraq to break up," he said.
Sheik Ahmed al-Lami, representative of anti-American Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr in a town south of Baghdad, agreed.
"It will happen, without a doubt," he said from Mahmoudiyah, where a Shiite militia loyal to al-Sadr has been battling Sunni militants. "God will not punish us for partitioning Iraq, but will certainly punish us for allowing so many Iraqis to die."