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The Bottom-Up Partition

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 10, 2007

The benchmark-centered reports on Iraq agree: The "surge" has failed to achieve its most fundamental objective, which is to catalyze a political reconciliation among Iraqis. Buried in the data, however, is plenty of evidence that Iraq is slowly moving toward a new political order. It's just not the one the Bush administration has in mind, and it's not happening on the timetable Congress wants.

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will probably concede today that the Shiite-led government hasn't delivered key legislation, such as a national oil law, and has done little to reconcile with minority Sunnis. But those benchmarks suppose a relatively centralized Iraq -- with a dominant national oil company, for example -- governed by a "unity" government in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds share power. They also assume that a decisive breakthrough toward this outcome will take place this year.

What's really happening is that Iraqis are slowly moving toward the solution their politicians first outlined in their constitution two years ago despite stiff American resistance. This is a loose confederation of at least three self-governing regions, each with its own government, courts and security forces; and a weak federal government whose main function will be redistributing oil revenue so that each region gets a share based roughly on its proportion of the population.

This is not the best outcome from the American point of view. It's possible that one of the regional mini-states, in the oil-rich Shiite south, will become an Iranian client, while Sunnis in the West may be ruled by the same toxic Arab national socialism championed by Saddam Hussein. A look back at the past eight months nevertheless provides plenty of evidence of Iraqi "progress" toward that political settlement.

Start with the Government Accountability Office's report on the benchmarks, which gives partial credit to the Iraqi parliament for just one piece of legislation: a bill passed last October that sets out the procedures for forming autonomous regions. Formal steps to create the regions are prohibited until next April. But Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south are already racing ahead. The most powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, has been campaigning hard for the project. Last month a group of 45 tribal leaders met in Najaf to launch a separate movement for "the self-rule government of the Iraqi south," electing a president and announcing plans for a 130-member council.

With the national oil law stalled, the already-extant Kurdish regional government in the north passed its "Kurdistan Oil and Gas Law" on Aug. 6. The legislation is more progressive and welcoming of foreign investment than that favored by the Iraqi government, but it still foresees that revenue will be redistributed nationally.

Iraqi sectarianism remains undiminished, and sentiment about partition is shifting. A national poll sponsored by Western news media showed that public support for either "regional states" or "independent states" as a political solution rose from 18 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in March. Meanwhile, the Iraqi population that most opposed separation -- in the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad -- is rapidly if brutally diminishing, thanks to continuing ethnic cleansing by Shiite militias and the flight of tens of thousands of Sunni families to Jordan and Syria.

The biggest step toward federalism is the one President Bush sought to focus attention on last week: the "Sunni awakening," in which dozens of tribes and tens of thousands of men have effectively abandoned the insurgency against U.S. forces and joined the fight against al-Qaeda. This development wasn't directly caused by the surge, and administration officials have trouble explaining how it will contribute to the national political reconciliation they say they are still seeking.

Yet it's clear that the new Sunni coalition provides an alternative source of order in Sunni areas to either al-Qaeda or the Shiite government -- a crucial missing element during the past several years. Many of the tribes seem unwilling to accept the current national regime, but they could be the foundation for a regional administration in the majority-Sunni western provinces, and perhaps the western neighborhoods of Baghdad where Sunnis are still the majority. Their militia forces may deter Shiites, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, who have aspired to create a dominating national power.

All of this is good news for Sen. Joseph Biden and other Democrats who have been proposing a "soft partition" of Iraq for some time. But the problem with Biden's strategy is that it calls for the United States to join with an international coalition in essentially forcing the scheme on Iraqis. The events of the past year have demonstrated, again, that Iraqis won't respond to guidelines and timetables drawn up in Washington or at the United Nations. Slowly and very painfully, they are moving toward a new political order. But they will do it -- they have to do it -- on their own time.


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