- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

If and when a constitution is agreed upon in Baghdad, that will not mean that a single democratic nation will rise from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s police state. The signs are already crystal clear. Fissure into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities is inevitable.

For months, the words federalism and autonomy have been euphemisms for this process. The United States has been pushing hard, prodding the constitutional draftsmen to insist on unity. We’ve been like the builders of a sea wall resisting the incursion of the waves. All of that was brought home with a vengeance last week with the statement of one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite politicians.

Abdul-Azizal-Hakim threw a live grenade on the table as the constitution drafting process was nearing its completion. In a speech, Mr. al-Hakim supported other Shi’ite leaders demanding autonomy for southern Iraq. This region, inhabited almost exclusively by Shi’ites, also happens to be the locale for about 80 percent of the country’s oil.

In view of Mr. al-Hakim’s words, the constitution will not be worth the paper it’s written on. It seems likely that the demands for southern Shiite autonomy will continue in the weeks and months ahead. If Mr. al-Hakim’s position becomes the dominant view of the Shi’ites, who are about 60 percent of the population, then the result will not be the single democratic Iraq that the Bush administration hopes. At best, there will be a federation of autonomous regions, some controlled by Shi’ites, others by Sunnis and still others by Kurds. All of this will be accompanied by endless squabbling over oil revenues. At worst, there will be three nations and a civil war.Soundslikethe breakup of Yugoslavia all over again.

Sunni leaders objected to Mr. al-Hakim’s demand and decried the idea of a confederation which would lead to a breakup of Iraq. They insisted that they want to “preserve the unity of Iraq.” There is more than a little irony to the Sunnis’ position. They were the ones who boycotted the election and initially the constitutional process. It is from their ranks that most of the insurgents have come.

Officials in Washington are equally horrified by the prospect raised by Mr. al-Hakim’s words. But it is time to be realistic. Iraq was never a single democratic country. It consisted of three groups of people who have hated each other for centuries, held together by a colonial ruler or a tyrannical despot.

In addition to historical animosity, there are fundamental differences dividing the three communities. The Kurds are far more secular and resist a central role for Islam. The Shi’ites are demanding a theocracy. The Sunnis have been the upper class, but they don’t have the oil.

If the inevitable occurs and the country fragments, there will be endless hand wringing in Washington. Critics of the Bush administration will once again unsheathe their stilettos, this time to claim that he United States destroyed a perfectly sound and viable country. This is total rot. Pre-emptively, the point should be made that terror was the mortar holding the Iraqi country together.

The disintegration of Iraq will be fraught with peril for the United States. The oil rich Shi’ite south is likely to be a close allay of Iran. Baghdad will be the source of constant skirmishes as Jerusalem has been.

There is a valuable lesson which has been repeated over and over again in the last 60 years, but we never seem to get it. Whether it’s the Indian subcontinent, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon or Yugoslavia, the conclusion is the same. People divided by ethnicity or religion, with deep-seated hatreds, will not agree to live together peacefully in the same political entity.

This conclusion may not be politically correct, but it is true. Naively, we assume that because Irish and Italians in Boston and other ethnic groups in American cities learned to live peacefully together, it will happen in places like Iraq. It won’t. The solution on the Indian subcontinent is two states: India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has seen the light. He’s building a fence on the West Bank and removing the Jews from Gaza.

The disintegration of Iraq won’t happen overnight. Right now the U.S. military is the glue holding the country together. It may work as long as we’re there, although even that’s questionable. Once we leave, the cracks will turn into fissures, then a full-scale division.

Allan Topol is a lawyer and the author of “Enemy Of My Enemy.”

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