Reider Visser: The US Senate Votes to Partition Iraq. Softly.





[Mr. Visser, D. Phil., is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website www.historiae.org. His latest books are Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (2005), and, edited with Gareth Stansfield, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (2007).]

On 26 September 2007 the United States Senate voted 75–23 in favour of an amendment to the defence spending bill for 2008 that authorises the US government to “encourage” Iraqis to find a “federal” solution to the internal conflicts in their country.

At least two different interpretations of the bill are possible. First, one may choose to highlight its comparatively insignificant character: an amendment to the original text stressed that any political settlement should be “consistent with the wishes of the Iraqi people and their elected leaders”. If this is taken literally, the amendment is meaningless: the Iraqis already have a constitution according to which those areas of the country that desire a federal status may seek one through specific mechanisms; accordingly there is nothing the United States needs to do to achieve a state structure that is consonant with the “wishes of the Iraqi people”. In that sort of interpretation, it does not make sense to speak about a new “plan” because the proposed course of action would demand no policy adjustments on the part of Washington whatsoever.

However, Joe Biden, the bill's sponsor, presumably thinks that he does indeed have a “plan for Iraq” – that is at least what he says when he promotes his presidential bid for 2008. It is therefore more logical to focus on the parts of his rhetoric that involve pushing the Iraqis in a particular direction. The key words in this regard are “Iraq’s major factions”, present in all the early drafts of Biden's amendment. This means a giant departure from the Iraqi constitution, which assigns the right to form a federal region to the individual inhabitants of the existing governorates, who may demand a referendum on a federal region if they can gather the support of a tenth of the electorate (or a third of the governorate council members) in each governorate in the projected federal entity. Instead, the Biden amendment introduced the idea of a US identification of “major factions”, which is something different altogether. Who are these factions? Biden’s colleague and co-sponsor of the bill, Republican Sam Brownback, made that perfectly clear during the Senate debate: they are the three “main ethno-sectarian groups” of Iraq, the Shiites, the Kurds, and the Sunni Arabs.

This is one area where Biden's ideas clearly violate the Iraqi constitution: any attempt on the part of the US to identify “major factions” would be a top–down, externally imposed solution on a matter in which the Iraqis themselves have already designed bottom–up mechanisms. Biden does not seem to appreciate the fact that federalist pioneers among the Iraqis have always warned against federalism based on ethnicities: in their opinion, federalism based on geographical, non-sectarian criteria could conceivably serve as national “glue”; conversely, and with the exception of the Kurds and the Shiite faction that happens to be closest to Iran, Iraqi supporters of federalism have always condemned ethno-sectarian variants of federalism as a giant leap towards partition. Biden should be challenged to spell out very explicitly the modalities by which he expects the constitutional right to form small-scale non-sectarian regions to simply disappear, and how he thinks the holy number “three” is to be arrived at. Perhaps he might then better understand how his actions are tantamount to abetting civil strife in today’s Iraq and represent a real step towards full partition? Has he even heard about the small-scale non-sectarian federal schemes that have been circulating in Basra in the far south since late 2003?

Interestingly, in the final version of the Biden amendment the "major factions" language was eliminated, which also meant that the "Biden plan" in many ways was back to square one, with no explicit language on ethnicity, but also with fewer claims to originality. However, a remaining major problem in the amendment is that it severely distorts the Iraqi constitution’s provisions for federalism. Biden does not understand, or does not want to understand, that there is no imperative in the Iraqi constitution for every part of the country to seek a federal status. Federalism is but one of two options: governorates may also elect to retain their current status. This is a feature of the 2005 constitution that is consonant with Iraqi political history. The drafters realised that the country has a long unitary tradition with widespread scepticism towards federalism among the population; appreciating these political tensions they abandoned any idea of imposing federalism “from above”. In fact, leading Iraqi politicians who drafted the 2006 law on implementing federalism have suggested that possibly no more than one or two governorates (like for instance Basra in the far south) will seek a status similar to Kurdistan when the federalism option formally becomes available in April 2008.

Scattered evidence from Iraq’s political process and from public opinion polls suggests that this anti-federal scepticism persists. Since the constitution was adopted in 2005 there have been several suggestions for constitutional amendment by Iraqi parties – both Shiite and Sunni – to limit federalism to ensure that no purely sectarian federal regions are allowed to develop. The latest poll numbers south of Kurdistan are not particularly supportive of Biden’s plan either, with for instance 56% of Shiites expressing the wish to abandon federalism altogether (almost all Sunnis agree with them on this), and with the remainder divided between different federal projects – only a small portion of which would correspond to Biden’s ethno-sectarian visions. Again, this is all in conflict with Biden’s idea of comprehensive, total federalisation. The senator should be more honest about these problems and should follow in the footsteps of his fellow pro-partitionist Michael O’Hanlon, who openly asserts that only a minority of Iraqis support any idea of soft partitioning or federalism based on ethnic groups. And more fundamentally, Biden must understand the logical defect of his current argument: he cannot claim authorship of a distinctive “plan” and at the same time maintain that he does not propose to impose anything on the Iraqi people. In fact the contradictions in this area are even worse in the final version of the amendment than in early drafts: the text now stipulates that the proposed international conference on Iraqi federalism should be based on the 2006 law for implementing federalism. This in itself is contradictive in the extreme because the key point of the 2006 legislation is that federalism shall never be imposed from the outside or from above in a single conference, but instead emerge gradually, only in those parts of the country that wish to adopt a federal model of government. Furthermore, who is to decide which Iraqis will take part in the projected conference? The Maliki government? This effectively brings back the question of how to nominate conference invitees and, more fundamentally, the basis (ethnic versus non-ethnic) on which to define representativeness in any grand "federal settlement" of the kind envisioned by Biden.

At the heart of this contradictive piece of legislation lie several more fundamental misunderstandings about Iraq among the many Biden plan supporters whose panegyrics adorn the senator’s website and are construed as evidence of the plan's great potential. Take for instance Henry Kissinger’s suggestion that “a wiser course would be to concentrate on the three principal regions”. He actually seems to believe that these regions already exist! Similarly, another prominent Biden supporter, David Brooks, recently used the story of the Iraqi politician Shadha al-Musawi as inspiration for an enthusiastic defence of ethnic federalism which was published in The New York Times – the only tiny problem being that Musawi herself is an avowed enemy of the idea of a soft partition of Iraq. Or consider Sam Brownback’s recent exegesis of Ottoman history, delivered in the Senate during the adoption of the Biden amendment, and reproduced here with added annotations in brackets:

“I show my colleagues a map that I think is kind of interesting. It is a map of Iraq under the Ottoman Empire. It is prior to the World War I divisions in Iraq. I think we ought to study history to keep from repeating past mistakes. I think we are repeating history now because we have not studied it sufficiently. So here is a map from 1914. This is fascinating. You have the north Ottoman [sic], which were called vilayets. This is in the State of Mosul, the Kurdish north [it was actually mixed, Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Christian, Turkmen, Yazidi]. You had the vilayet of Baghdad, the Sunni area in Iraq [it was mixed and contained all the Shiite holy cities]. You had the vilayet of Basra, the Shia State [it had fewer Shiites than Baghdad, and was politically dominated by Sunnis]. Baghdad was the federal city – a very effective city at that particular time [this is pure nonsense: there was no federalism in these parts of the Ottoman Empire; Baghdad did however have some supervisory functions for all the Iraqi vilayets for instance in customs, military affairs and justice]… Again, here is a three-state solution that the Ottoman Empire put in place as a way of managing these different groups who do not agree with each other, who do not get along [again, this suggests that Brownback fully believes that Basra was somehow “more Shiite” and “less Sunni” than Baghdad, whereas in fact all the vilayets of the Ottoman Empire in this region were Sunni-dominated].”

All in all the Biden amendment is an alarming but useful numerical indication of the level of support for an “ethnic” approach to Iraqi politics in the US Senate (the supporters included presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), as well as a reminder of the remarkable unfamiliarity among even elite US politicians with the finer points of Iraqi legislation on federalism. It does not bode well for the future that the potential successors to President Bush seem to converge on a scheme that would be even more unpalatable to the Muslim world than Washington’s current policy. True, Bush invaded Iraq, and Paul Bremer weakened the country severely. There are worrying signs that some in the State Department, like Ryan Crocker, are already indistinguishable from Biden by tirelessly “encouraging” Sunnis to think in terms of federalism. But if his partition plans were implemented, Joe Biden would be remembered by Muslims and Arabs around the world in an altogether different way. He would be considered alongside other historical personalities who routinely are being accused by Middle Easterners for having destroyed their region completely: Arthur Balfour, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Robert Lee Gaston - 10/2/2007

One should ask candidate Biden how president Biden would respond to our NATO partner Turkey moving troops into Kurdish Iraq.

Would Turkey or Iran tolerate a Kurdish political entity on their border?

How would the U.S. Provide the necessary security guarantee to such an arrangement?


Subscribe to our mailing list