By Edward P. Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon

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EXCERPT – The time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country. Soft partition would involve the Iraqis, with the assistance of the international community, dividing their country into three main regions. Each would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance, as Iraqi Kurdistan already does. Creating such a structure could prove difficult and risky. However, when measured against the alternatives— continuing to police an ethno-sectarian war, or withdrawing and allowing the conflict to escalate— the risks of soft partition appear more acceptable. Indeed, soft partition in many ways simply responds to current realities on the ground, particularly since the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, a major Shi’i shrine, dramatically escalated intersectarian violence. If the U.S. troop surge, and the related effort to broker political accommodation through the existing coalition government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki fail, soft partition may be the only means of avoiding an intensification of the civil war and growing threat of a regional conflagration. While most would regret the loss of a multi-ethnic, diverse Iraq, the country has become so violent and so divided along ethno-sectarian lines that such a goal may no longer be achievable.

Soft partition would represent a substantial departure from the current approach of the Bush Administration and that proposed by the Iraq Study Group, both of which envision a unitary Iraq ruled largely from Baghdad. It would require new negotiations, the formation of a revised legal framework for the country, the creation of new institutions at the regional level, and the organized but voluntary movement of populations. For these reasons, we refer to it as a “Plan B” for Iraq. It would require acquiescence from most major Iraqi political factors (though not necessarily all, which is an unrealistic standard in any event). It might best be negotiated outside the current Iraqi political process, perhaps under the auspices of a special representative of the United Nations as suggested by Carlos Pascual of the Brookings Institution.

International mediation could succeed where the current, U.S.-led effort to pry concessions out of alMaliki’s government has failed. Indeed, Kurds and Shi’i Arabs would have far more incentive to cede on the fundamental issue of oil production and revenuesharing if they knew that their core strategic objectives would be realized through secure, empowered regions. Although it would surely play a facilitating role along with the United Nations, the United States need not bear the burden, nor the stigma, of leading Iraqis towards soft partition. At the outset, it would suffice for the United States simply to cease its insistence on the alternative of an Iraq ruled from Baghdad that at once fails to serve Sunni Arabs while serving as a symbolic threat to Shi’i Arabs—an Iraq that has encouraged the Shi’i Arabs to cement their dominance of the country’s power center against any potential Sunni Arab revival.