January 28, 2007

During the summer of 1995, Edward Joseph was serving as a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia. He was asked to help Muslim women and children flee from an area near Srebrenica, where 7,000 Muslims had already been slaughtered by Serb forces.

It was a controversial mission. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees refused to participate, believing the evacuation would just complete the ethnic cleansing. But the high commissioner didn’t see the crowds of Muslim women shrieking in terror as Serb jeeps rolled by. Joseph did. It might seem high-minded to preach ethnic reconciliation from afar, Joseph now says, but in a civil war, when you can’t protect people, it’s immoral to leave them to be killed.

Gradually, leaders on all sides of the Bosnian fight came to see it was in their interest to separate their peoples. And once the ethnic groups were given sanctuary, it became possible to negotiate a peace that was imperfect, but which was better than the reverberating splashes of blood.

Today, many of the people active in Bosnia believe they have a model that could help stabilize Iraq. They acknowledge the many differences between the two places, but Iraq, they note, is a disintegrating nation. Ethnic cleansing is dividing Baghdad, millions are moving, thousands are dying and the future looks horrific.

The best answer, then, is soft partition: create a central government with a few key powers; reinforce strong regional governments; separate the sectarian groups as much as possible.

In practice, that means, first, modifying the Iraqi Constitution.

As Joe Biden points out, the Constitution already goes a long way toward decentralizing power. It gives the provinces the power to have their own security services, to send ambassadors to foreign countries, to join together to form regions. Decentralization is not an American imposition, it’s an Iraqi idea.

But, he adds, so far the Constitution doesn’t yet have legislation that would do things like equitably share oil and gas revenue. The Sunnis will never be content with a strip of sand unless they’re constitutionally guaranteed 20 percent of the nation’s wealth.

The second step is getting implicit consent from all sects that separation and federalism are in their interest. The Shiites would have to accept that there never will be a stable Iraq if the Sunnis are reduced to helot status. The Kurds would have to accept that peace and stability are worth territorial compromise in Kirkuk. The Sunnis would have to accept that they’re never going to run Iraq again, and having a strong Sunni region is better than living under a Shiite jackboot.

As Les Gelb says, unless the thirst for vengeance has driven the leaders in Iraq beyond the realm of reason, it should be possible to persuade them to see where their best interests lie.

The third step in a soft partition would be the relocation of peoples. This would mean using U.S. or Iraqi troops to shepherd people who want to flee toward areas where they feel safe. It would mean providing humanitarian assistance so they can get back on their feet.

As Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon note, in this kind of operation, timing is everything. Move people in a certain neighborhood too early, and militias could perceive a vacuum and accelerate the violence. Move too late and you could be moving corpses.

The fourth step is getting Iraq’s neighbors to buy into the arrangement. Presumably neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia really relishes complete chaos in Iraq and a proxy war with each other after the U.S. withdraws. The Turks would have to be reassured that this plan means no independent Kurdistan will ever come into being.

The most serious objection to soft partition is that the Sunni and Shiite populations are too intermingled in Baghdad and elsewhere to really separate. This objection, sadly, becomes less of a problem every day. But it would still be necessary to maintain peacekeepers in the mixed neighborhoods, be open to creative sovereignty structures, and hope that the detoxification of the situation nationally might reduce violence where diverse groups touch.

In short, logic, circumstances and politics are leading inexorably toward soft partition. The Bush administration has been slow to recognize its virtues because it is too dependent on the Green Zone Iraqis. The Iraqis talk about national unity but their behavior suggests they want decentralization. Sooner or later, everybody will settle on this sensible policy, having exhausted all the alternatives