Middle East fears partitioning of Iraq
Chicago Tribune
By Liz Sly

AMMAN, Jordan — The vote in Iraq’s parliament earlier this month establishing ground rules for the creation of a Shiite region in southern Iraq attracted little attention outside the Middle East. But in a region already jittery about the likelihood of a full-blown Iraqi civil war and the newfound stature of Shiites following last summer’s war in Lebanon, the law’s passage set alarm bells ringing.

If Iraq’s Shiites can form their own entity, why not those of northeastern Saudi Arabia, who chafe under Sunni rule? Or the Shiites of southern Lebanon? What about other minorities, such as the Alawis of Syria, the Druze and Christians of Lebanon, the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran? Will they, too, demand the right to rule themselves?

And what about Iraq’s Sunnis, who would be left with little but a patch of desert? Should they be allowed to languish impoverished in the landlocked remnants of a dismantled Iraq, or could they perhaps be accommodated by attaching their provinces to Jordan, or Syria or Saudi Arabia?

“If this starts in Iraq, it will end up God knows where,” said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst in Amman, where any talk of redrawing regional boundaries draws shudders of dismay because of Jordan’s proximity to Israel and the Palestinian territories. “You cannot point your finger at this issue and look at it as a local problem, limited to Iraq.”

Already, Al Qaeda in Iraq has responded to the new law by declaring the existence of its own “Islamic state” in the Sunni provinces of Iraq. Saudi Arabia is planning to build a 550-mile electronic fence along its desert border with Iraq, complete with motion sensors and face-recognition cameras, to contain any fallout from the threatened disintegration of the Iraqi nation.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Syrian President Bashar Assad summed up the fears of Iraq’s neighbors that the federalism project would destabilize the entire region.

“Imagine a necklace that breaks and all the pearls fall to the ground,” he told the German magazine. “Almost all countries have breaking points, and when the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country it will not fail to occur elsewhere too. It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars: No one will be able to get a grip on the consequences.”

It is far from certain at this point whether the federalism law will be enacted, and even if it is, whether the region’s worst fears–that it will effectively partition the country and dismantle the state–would be realized.

Iraq’s ruling Shiite alliance has agreed to defer implementation of the law’s provisions for 18 months, pending a parliamentary review of the constitution. Sunnis are hoping to amend the constitution, thereby rendering the law invalid.

It is also unclear whether even most Shiites want to see the creation of a separate southern region.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leading partners in the Shiite alliance, has been promoting a plan under which up to nine of Iraq’s southern, Shiite-dominated provinces would unite to form a single region, one that would exert control over most of the country’s oil resources and give Shiite Iran a strategic foothold in the Arab world.

Given the de facto autonomy already enjoyed by the Kurds in Iraq’s three northern provinces, the plan would effectively divide Iraq into three parts–one Shiite, one Sunni and one Kurdish–spelling the end, opponents fear, of the Iraqi state.

But several other leading Shiite figures have spoken out against the plan. An opinion poll in June conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 78 percent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shiites, opposed the segregation of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Questioning break-up
In the absence of an effective or meaningful debate on the many different forms federalism might take, it would be wrong to dismiss the option outright, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“It’s very difficult simply to say federalism is bad. Some kind of separation may be necessary,” he said. “Not every form of federation means breaking up Iraq.”

But in a region where strong centralized governments have historically prevailed, all talk of federalism is regarded as tantamount to partition. The passage of the law in Iraq’s parliament, over Sunni objections, and the escalating violence in Baghdad and elsewhere are fueling fears that the disintegration of the Iraqi state is destined to become a reality.

“It’s exactly what we don’t want to happen, yet it seems to be more or less a foretold conclusion. It seems this is the way Iraq is heading,” said Nawaf Obaid, a top security adviser to the Saudi government who has just authored a major review of Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Iraq.

Among other steps, the review suggests engaging Iraq’s Shiites by inviting their top religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, on a state visit to Saudi Arabia and using Saudi influence in Washington to deter a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

It also proposes measures to counter Iran’s already substantial influence in Iraq, one of the chief concerns of the region’s Sunni-led regimes.

It should be made clear to Tehran, the report says, that unless Iran stops meddling in Iraq, Saudi Arabia “will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert program of its own.”

Saudi Arabia’s hope, Obaid said, is to head off Iraq’s fragmentation by promoting Shiite-Sunni understanding and by using its influence with Iraqi tribes to encourage unity. In an unusual foray into Iraqi politics, the Saudi Cabinet last week issued a strong statement pledging support for “all patriotic forces that work for Iraq’s unity” and urging Iraqis to “stand against attempts to partition the country under whatever guise.”

It is a call being echoed elsewhere. The Jordanian newspaper al Arab al-Yom last week called for a coordinated response by the region’s Sunnis to “re-establish balance” in a Shiite-dominated Iraq through political and financial support.

“If not, the weakness and isolation of Arab Sunnis and the refusal of Arab states to help them will tempt the separatists in the north and the south to pursue a comprehensive civil war until division is reached,” the commentary said.

Warning of Balkans
Washington also has increasingly been speaking out against suggestions that Iraq should be divided.

“You don’t want to re-create the Balkans,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday, describing talk of partition as “a recipe for a tinderbox.”

On a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice encouraged the Saudi government to play a more active role in stabilizing Iraq.

But America’s ability to influence events in Iraq and the region is waning, and its entire Iraq strategy is on the table for review, compounding the uncertainties about where Iraq is headed.

While more engagement by Iraq’s neighbors might help promote unity, there is also a risk that neighboring states will seek to pursue their own agendas and turn the country into a regional battleground, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project director for the International Crisis Group in Amman.

“We’ll have a replay of the Iran-Iraq War between the Iranians and the Arab states over what’s left of Iraq,” he said.

And for a part of the world whose borders were drawn less than a century ago by British and French administrators, the consequences could indeed be dire, Hiltermann warned.

“Everything here is new, a century old. The system has endured, but once it comes unstuck, anything can be challenged,” he said. “It’s madness, but if Iraq falls apart madness will rule the day.”
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