- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The partition of Iraq is far from an original idea. The notion has been floated around Washington and Baghdad numerous times since the start of the war in 2003. Pundits, journalists and politicians have in the past proposed the partition of Iraq in various forms despite strong opposition from Iraqi leaders, the Bush administration and the Iraqi Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton.

But as the country seems to be drawn more and more into a full-fledged civil war killing hundreds of people on a monthly basis — as well as increasing the numbers of U.S. casualties — the notion of partition may just offer the best solution, if only to keep the antagonists apart and stop the slaughter.

This time the idea stems from two American scholars, Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, and Edward Joseph, a visiting scholar. They are the authors of a newly released report from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy titled “The case for a soft partition in Iraq” as an alternative plan for stabilizing the war-torn country. Unfortunately for Iraq, their plan calls for breaking up the country into three separate entities.

“Soft partition has a number of advantages over other ‘Plan B’ proposals currently under discussion,” argue the two Brookings scholars. Most other plans focus on a U.S. troop withdrawal or on containing “civil war spillover [into] other countries, rather than the prevention of a substantial worsening of Iraq’s civil war.”

The difference with a soft partition, say the report’s authors, is that it “could allow the United States and its partners to preserve their core strategic goals: an Iraq that lives in peace with its neighbors, opposes terrorism, and gradually progress towards a more stable future.”

Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Joseph believe it would “further allow for the possibility over time for the re-establishment of an Iraq increasingly integrated across sectarian lines rather than permanently segregated.”

But this partitioning of Iraq comes with a caveat; it needs to be carried out carefully. If successful, it would help end the war and the enormous loss of life on all sides.

But what about al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism? What guarantees that their actions would stop with partition and not continue so long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq? Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Joseph argue that in the event of failure of the U.S. surge of additional American forces into the battle ordered by President Bush several months ago and related efforts to broker a political accommodation with the existing government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, soft partition may be the only way to avoid intensifying the civil war and the growing threats of a regional conflagration.

The two scholars propose building two more autonomous regions, along the lines of the existing Kurdish autonomy region in the northern part of the country; one for Sunni Muslims and one for the Shi’ites.

In other words, Iraq would become a federation, or a confederation, loosely governed from Baghdad where the central authority would oversee issues such as national defense and the fair sharing of oil resources among all three regions, leaving local government to run the rest.

Mr. O'Hanlon proposes a seven-step solution to help make the transition as peaceful as possible.

(1) A soft partition of Iraq will not help speed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. It will not be a welcome message for most people, but it is a realistic message. In fact, Mr. O'Hanlon suggests keeping at least 150,000 U.S. troops for the foreseeable future and gradually cutting down to about 50,000 to 75,000 troops to be kept in Iraq for several years to come. Mr. O'Hanlon compares the situation in Iraq to that of the Bosnia region.

(2) You have to think about drawing regional boundaries and where you draw those boundaries.

(3) You also have to think about how you protect people as they relocate. About 5 million Iraqis are likely to be concerned by these measures.

(4) You have to help people start over their new lives once relocated.

(5) You have to have some kind of concept for sharing oil revenues; otherwise you risk feeding the rift between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.

(6) You need some way to track people; you need identity cards. That will make it harder for terrorists from al Qaeda operating in western Baghdad to infiltrate Shi’ite neighborhoods.

(7) And lastly you need to rebuild institutions.

The report’s authors are realistic in that they admit from the outset to sharing “some of these concerns [regarding partition] and, as a matter of principle and theory, disliked partition as a solution to ethno-sectarian conflict.”

However, Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Joseph see the option of partition in Iraq becoming at some point the “lesser of the range of possible evils.”

Backing up their theory, Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Joseph refer to partition in history, citing the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I that “carved up much of the Middle East [including Iraq].”

In fact, it was the Treaty of Sevres that shared the spoils of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, carving up much of the Middle East. And look where it got us today.

The Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany pay reparations for the war, and it eventually led to World War II.

There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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