- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

Despite many mistakes in the execution of the Iraq war after Saddam Hussein’s removal, I believe the consequences of failure in that country would be devastating to U.S. national security. We simply cannot allow Iraq to degenerate into a failed state or serve as a safe haven for terrorists.

At the same time, as the brave members of our armed forces pursue our military objectives, we need a plan to couple our military success with a political solution that will resolve the divisions and violence in Iraq.

In my view, the best chance — and maybe the only hope — to achieve peace and stability in Iraq is to recognize that the country’s three main groups are unlikely to reach a lasting agreement to share power as part of a centralized government. Nor will the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds agree, at least in the foreseeable future, to be ruled by anyone besides their own leaders.

Given this reality, it is now time to seriously consider a plan that would lead to a decentralized Iraqi state of three semi-autonomous entities. It is a concept I have discussed for about two years, and I’m not alone. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have raised it, as have several foreign policy scholars.

Under the proposal, Iraq would remain unified, but the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds would be granted powers to conduct most day-to-day governmental functions such as law enforcement and education. The central government would remain in charge of national issues such as border security, the sharing of oil revenues and foreign policy.

Such a governing system is specifically permitted under the Iraq constitution. Still there would be challenges, particularly in large cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk, which are ethnically and religiously mixed. Any solution would include dividing these cities, where possible, along natural boundaries, facilitating movement of people and guaranteeing minority rights for those left behind.

Such a solution also recognizes Iraq is already dividing along these lines, though by ethnic cleansing and factional murders. Thousands of innocent Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds have died in sectarian violence. An agreed plan for devolving power to three regions is the best hope to end the violence.

At every opportunity, Iraqis have expressed support for decentralization. In 2005, they voted overwhelmingly for a constitution that contemplates creation of regions with broad authority for self-government. And later in the same year, Sunni and Shi’ites alike voted overwhelmingly for sectarian parties during the parliamentary elections. If anything, attitudes in favor of regional autonomy have only gained strength since.

Perhaps Iraqis at one point could have lived under the rule of a centralized government in Baghdad. But after decades of oppression by the Sunni-led regime of Saddam Hussein, as well as the last four years of ethnic killings, that time has passed.

Moreover, there is precedent for such a solution. In the 1990s, Bosnia, ruled by a ruthless dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, was riven by an ethno-religious war that claimed more than 200,000 lives and created 2 million refugees. The United States, along with some of our allies, stepped in and helped facilitate an agreement — the Dayton Accords — that created two largely self-governing entities in Bosnia. This helped both to end the violence and preserve the territorial integrity of the country. The alternative would probably have been continued violence or creation of separate states run by Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims.

As the former chairman of the Europe Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, I had oversight over carrying out the Dayton Agreement. I saw how separating the warring factions and giving the three groups greater autonomy actually made a lasting peace possible.

Following Dayton, the United States has had to maintain troops in Bosnia to help prevent an outbreak of violence and protect minority rights. However, because a political settlement was reached, not one American soldier had been killed in that country during the last 12 years.

No two situations are the same. However, like Bosnia, I believe decentralization and regional self-government offer the best opportunity for U.S. military successes to lead to long-term stability and peace in Iraq. Once stability is restored and the terrorists defeated, America can draw down its military presence in that country with both its honor and security interests intact.

At the very least, it is incumbent on leaders both in Congress and the administration to seriously consider this plan, weighing its pros and cons as compared to our other options for Iraq.

Elton Gallegly, California Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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