x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A federal Iraq would be built on the weaknesses of today

A partition of Iraq would only entrench sectarian divisions in this shattered nation. There is no substitute for unity.

After US troops left and bombs returned to the streets of Baghdad, an old idea resurfaced: instead of gluing together a broken Iraq, why not refashion the country? If Iraq were split - in practice, if not in law - the parts could better govern themselves.

The idea of a federal Iraq is really a form of soft partition and has a long history in policy circles, debated in 2006 as the war began to run away from the Americans. It has recently returned to the forefront of discussion as Iraq appears to be unravelling.

But it won't work. Now is not the time to talk of federalism, a policy that would entrench the divisions in Iraqi society and make the country more - not less - vulnerable to outside influence. There is no substitute for unity.

Surprisingly, given how real sectarian divisions have become since 2003, it is astonishing how much of federalism rests on an initial misguided premise: that the complexity of a nation like Iraq could be reduced to a neat split between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. This mix of ethnic and religious categories - most Kurds are Sunnis Muslims, and most of the Sunni and Shiites in Iraq are Arabs - started as a way of explaining an enormously varied country in foreign policy circles. The division seemed neat, especially as geographical regions could be labelled to fit.

So prevalent has this narrative become that, as so often happens with ideas in the realm of politics, the theory became reality, with thousands of small decisions taken based on that original explanation.

Alliances, possible support for political and military action, the likelihood of rebellion among particular communities - all of these came to be seen through the prism of this narrative: the Sunnis were restive, keen to hold on to their former dominance under Saddam Hussein, while the Shiites were more likely to be pro-American, given their previous marginalisation. On the ground, though, Iraqis were much more mixed, and did not distinguish so easily between Sunnis and Shiites. Many families, especially in the cosmopolitan cities, were mixed.

It is hard to overemphasise how this narrative has affected Iraq. The destruction visited on Iraq by the American military was enormous: the doctrine of "shock and awe" was misleading. Iraq was not shocked and awed by the war; it was shattered. There was no possibility of swift recovery from something as devastating as this unprovoked war.

Any move towards federalism accepts this misguided narrative and would entrench it in the region for a generation. With the country divided along sectarian lines, each part would be more vulnerable to external influence from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

More to the point, federalism in the current situation would simply not work. Any move towards federalism would start the political logic of division, sparking a power grab among provinces keen to exert control over mixed areas. It would implicitly accept the partition of the country and - given that Iraq is full of weapons and the know-how to use them - would undoubtedly spark forced displacements of Sunnis and Shiites as those areas sought to cleanse the other.

Admittedly, that has already happened to a degree: Baghdad, a previously mixed city, is being slowly but surely split into religious enclaves. But federation would push this tendency to its logical conclusion, and lead to further bloodshed. It is unclear how Iraq could recover - especially because, under the sort of federal system likely to occur, security forces would also be divided along sectarian lines.

The best that could be said about any federalism in today's Iraq is that it would entrench the separation of previously mixed communities. The worst is that it would spark widespread slaughter.

The economy is key to this. As much as a federal system ought to, in theory, allow Sunni controlled areas more say over their own affairs, calming tensions with the Shiite-led government, in actual fact it would inflame tensions between the Sunni provinces to the west and the Shiite provinces in the centre and the south.

The logic of federalism is that richer areas would contribute more to the central government, which then would distribute the largesse to provinces based on demographics. But does anyone believe this would happen in Iraq after so many years of conflict? Would the Kurdish regions, now richer and prosperous, agree to send money flowing elsewhere? Would the Shiite south, which would encompass the country's two largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, be willing to offer payment to the Sunni west? Much more likely that, after so many years of disenfranchisement and with the logic of partition, they would keep their own resources.

Worst of all would be the bloodshed as factions within the Sunni and Shia political parties jockeyed for position. This is not mere fantasy: the Sadr Movement led by Muqtada Al Sadr has a well-armed militia under its command. There is precedent as well. Even after the Kurds were granted de facto autonomous rule in the early 1990s, rival factions still attacked each other. The politics of power always trumps the politics of identity.

And this is the key to the current problems in Iraq. The divisions that are playing out in blood on the streets of its cities have little to do with identity and everything to do with power. As a shattered nation rebuilds itself, it needs to glue the pieces back together, not build new nations from the fragments.



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