The Bush administration is hoping that Sunday's
election will help stop the bloody insurgency
plaguing Iraq. But few will vote in the country's
violence-plagued Sunni-dominated areas, and so the
Sunnis will achieve meagre representation in the
country's national assembly -- a result that will
only amplify Sunni anger.
So what can the United States do to dampen the
insurgency and avoid a potential civil war?
Something that till now it has avoided like the
plague: rapid troop withdrawal and a complete
transition to Iraqi self-determination.
Such a move would probably result in the
partitioning of Iraq or at least the creation of a
loose confederation in which the nation's Kurds,
Sunnis and Shia would govern their own affairs. Many
foreign-policy experts speak of this as a scenario
to be feared. But such fears are misplaced.
Had the Clinton administration allowed the
partitioning of multi-ethnic Bosnia in the mid-90s,
Western nations would probably not have been saddled
with the ongoing task of keeping the peace in this
Balkan tinderbox. If American and European
peacekeepers withdrew today, the fighting among
Bosnia's ethnic groups would likely resume.
The artificially conceived state of Iraq cannot
remain both whole and democratic in the Western
sense. Regional self-determination would deal with
the root causes of the insurgency and give guerrilla
groups some incentive to stop fighting.
The Sunni guerrillas are fighting to repel a foreign
invader and prevent payback from Iraq's
soon-to-be-elected Shiite government. The Shia, who
make up 60% of the Iraqi population, have suffered
years of oppression under the Sunni minority, and
will likely win significant power in Sunday's
Even the Kurds, who are generally friendly to the
United States, may turn surly if they are not
allowed to keep the autonomy they've enjoyed for the
last 13 years. As demonstrated when King George III
attempted to revoke traditional English rights from
American colonists, taking away freedom is always
more dangerous than not granting it in the first
If the United States withdrew its forces and each
group were allowed to govern itself in its own
region, the incentives for violence against both
foreigners and other Iraqi groups would decline. The
Sunnis would no longer be apprehensive about payback
from a national Shia-led administration. The Kurds
would keep their autonomy. No group would be able to
use the central government to persecute others. And
each group could convert its own militias into
regional security forces.
There are downsides to such a scenario, of course.
First, the three (or more) new governments might not
fit the Western democratic model. Second, Turkey
would not be happy about the influence that an
autonomous Kurdish regime would have on its own
restive Kurdish minority. Third, the Iraqi Shia
region could be co-opted by Shiite Iran next door.
But such concerns are overstated. There are many
nations in the region that are not U.S.-style
federations -- Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, among
others -- but are still friendly to the West.
Moreover, Turkey has tolerated de facto Kurdish
self-determination in northern Iraq for more than a
decade, and would probably not invade an independent
or autonomous Kurdistan for fear of torpedoing its
entry into the European Union. As for the Shiite
region, Iraq's Shia have shown themselves to be
independent of their Persian brethren, and have
different views on the separation of church and
state. Because the holiest shrines of Shiite Islam
are in Iraq, not Iran, Iraqi clerics have as much
prestige as their Iranian counterparts (or more) --
thus lessening the religious sway held by Tehran.
Sunday's national elections will probably serve only
to increase the violence in Iraq. A permanent
solution to the country's woes requires a different
strategy. Allowing Iraqis complete
self-determination, including the possibility of a
three-way split, is the only path that permits the
Bush administration to extricate itself from the
Iraqi tar baby.
Ivan Eland is senior fellow and director of the
Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent
Institute in Oakland, Calif.
© National Post 2005