Biden pitches division of Iraq

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Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, yesterday called for dividing Iraq into three separate regions held together by a loose central government, thus clearing the way for withdrawing most U.S. troops by 2008.

“It recognizes this new, central reality in Iraq [that] a rising tide of sectarian violence is the biggest threat to Iraq’s future and to America’s interests,” the Delaware Democrat said. “It is premised on the proposition that the only way to hold Iraq together, and to create the conditions for our troops to responsibly withdraw, is to give Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds room to breathe in their own regions.”

Mr. Biden, who has said he is considering a 2008 presidential campaign, promoted the idea as a “third way that can bring our troops home, protect our fundamental security interests and preserve Iraq as a unified country” in a speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and in an opinion piece published in yesterday’s New York Times.

“The choice I’m proposing can give all of us … realistic hope that our sacrifices in Iraq were not in vain,” he said.

Sunnis, who ran the country during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, historically have adamantly opposed splitting the nation.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan called the proposal a non-starter yesterday, saying President Bush and the Iraqis are committed to a “federal, democratic, pluralist and unified Iraq in which there is full respect for political and human rights.”

“A partition government with regional security forces and a weak central government … is something that no Iraqi leader has proposed and that the Iraqi people have not supported,” he said.

But in his speech, Mr. Biden noted that Iraq has had three years of unity governments and “sectarian violence has escalated.”

Staffers for Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada had no immediate comment on Mr. Biden’s proposal. Instead, their bosses criticized Mr. Bush on the third anniversary of his declaration that major military operations were over in Iraq.

“Since President Bush rendered his judgment of ‘mission accomplished,’ more than 2,200 Americans have lost their lives, about 20,000 have been wounded, many hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been expended, and now, Iraq is engaged in a civil war, the degree of which is unknown,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor. “Three years later, with fighting and violence continuing across Iraq, we know that declaration was woefully premature.”

Mr. Biden, whose New York Times piece was co-authored with Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, defended their plan as consistent with Iraq’s constitution and new government and used Bosnia as a supporting example. Allowing Muslims, Croats and Serbs to maintain separate armies “kept the country whole,” and Bosnians have lived in relative peace since, he said.

The Biden plan would deem the Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions each responsible for their own laws, security and administration. A weaker central government would be created to police the borders and to run foreign affairs and oil revenues.

It would increase U.S. aid to Iraq on the condition the rights of women and minorities are protected, would withdraw all but a small force of U.S. troops by 2008 and would rely on the international community to help protect the country’s borders to avoid a regional war. The plan also would guarantee Sunnis 20 percent of the country’s oil revenue, but Iraq analysts worry it would leave Sunnis without any control of the country’s oil production.

Analysts said splitting the nation along ethnic and sectarian lines would mean massive relocations of people and enormous upheaval in Iraq’s major cities where all three groups reside.

Anthony Cordesman, a counterterrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a breakup would allow extremist groups with links to al Qaeda to increase their dominance over Sunni insurgents and push Iran to exploit the power vacuum left if the U.S. pulls out.

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