The Washington Post

People have talked about Iraq breaking up for years. Now it may actually happen.

The battle between Islam's two major branches began centuries ago and is threatening Iraq's path to a stable democracy today. The Post's senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung explains. (Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

In 2006, as Iraq descended into sectarian violence, two men wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. They argued that we could only "maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests."

One of those two authors, Leslie H. Gelb, is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. The other was a U.S. senator for Delaware, Joe Biden. The idea stoked some controversy at the time, with critics describing it as a "partition." But the logic was understandable.

Iraq broadly falls into distinct regions that line up with ethnic or religious groups: A Kurdish north, a Sunni middle, and a Shiite south. Iraq's modern borders were defined by its time in the Ottoman Empire and subsequent years as a British mandate, and you can make an argument that they are "artificial." Many felt that Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni government had only been able to maintain a centralized, national government with repressive, dictatorial tactics. That wasn't compatible with a modern democracy, and the fear was that if regions weren't given more power, conflict was inevitable.

(Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)

Given recent events, those fears look justified. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Islamist extremist group birthed from al-Qaeda, has taken over many of the Sunni areas of Iraq, including the major city of Mosul. Baghdad's majority-Shiite government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, appears unable to force its own army to face them on the battlefield – and worse still, their policies appear to have led many moderate Sunnis to grudgingly accept ISIS. Meanwhile, the Kurds have taken the northern city of Kirkuk, one of the few remaining disputed areas (the Kurds have long enjoyed virtual autonomy). On Friday, Shiite militias began gathering to take up arms.

In effect, the country is de-facto partitioned. As The Post's Liz Sly tweeted this week, "Iraq is basically falling apart. No other way to put it."

When reached by phone Thursday, Gelb explained that the current situation was exactly what he had feared. "This is the worst of all possible worlds – anarchy!" he said.

Gelb has long maintained that he and Biden never said they supported partitioning Iraq, as their critics suggested. Instead, what they had hoped for was a federal government "like the U.S. or Switzerland," he explains. "I think [a partition] destroys the economic viability of the territories. It creates a permanent warfare among the sections," he added. When asked if this could happen even if the Baghdad government tries to retain unity, he says it could. "That is the danger now."

Biden and Gelb's plan won the endorsement of the Senate in 2007, though it was not binding and failed to convince President George W. Bush. It also apparently failed to compel Maliki. While Iraq's constitution actually does allow for power to be devolved to regions, Maliki blocked a number of Kurdish and Sunni attempts at regionalism and eventually allowed his central government to become dominated by Shiite Islamists.

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have taken over Mosul and other northern provinces, prepare to board a bus in Najaf on June 13. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

Even if Biden and Gelb were hesitant to use the word "partition," others were not. Peter Galbraith, writing in 2007, put it simply: "Let’s face it: partition is a better outcome than a Sunni-Shiite civil war." Galbraith, a longtime U.S. diplomat, had long advocated an even further devolution of power than federalization. Asked about recent events, he was unequivocal. "It's the end of Iraq," Galbraith, now a state senator in Vermont, said. "It is the breakup of Iraq along the lines of three communities. It isn't just that ISIS came into the Sunni areas with a small number of really dedicated fighters who were able to defeat a much larger and demoralized Iraqi army, it is that the population is increasingly hostile to the Iraqi army, seeing it as Shiite army."

"Meanwhile, over the last 24 hours, the Kurds have now taken and secured Kirkuk – in other words all of their disputed territory," he said, adding that Kurdish Iraqis had "never wanted to be a part of Iraq" and were now openly talking about independence. Galbraith argues that Maliki squandered his opportunity for the federalism that Gelb and Biden espoused. "He tried to run the same authoritarian, centralized Iraq that had always been the case, but he never had the power," he says.

The idea that Iraq's sectarian differences are intractable has proved unpopular with many, not least Iraqi politicians, many of whom criticized Biden's plan after it passed the Senate in 2007. A BBC poll from the time found that only 9 percent of respondents favored “a country divided into separate states." Reidar Visser, a  historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford who is based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, has been a vocal critic of the way that the United States has stressed proportional sectarian representation rather than national Iraqi unity. He sees the current situation as disastrous, and worries that it may widen. "A formal partition of Iraq would add fuel to the flames of Syria and potentially could intensify current sectarian strife in places like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia," he writes in an e-mail.

A masked pesh merga fighter from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region guards a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province  in Aski kalak near the region's capital Arbil on June 13. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Galbraith agrees that it's hard to see how this current situation could be interpreted positively. He argues, however, that there's little anyone can do at this point. "It's happened. And there's a broader phenomenon: The end of World War I settlement. It ended in Europe in 89-91 with Yugoslavia. And now its happening with Syria and Iraq." His comments echo a theoretical map put together last year by foreign policy analyst Robin Wright, who imagined a "Sunnistan," "Shiiteistan," "Kurdistan" and "Alawitestan" making up what is now Iraq and Syria.

Joe Biden, of course, has been vice president of the United States since 2008. His hopes for a federalized, regionally devolved Iraq received little attention after he took office. In 2010, as the sectarian strife that had plagued Iraq over the previous years appeared to calm, he spoke more positively of the future of Iraq in an interview with CNN's Larry King, arguing that it would be seen as "one of the great achievements of this administration."


Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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