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The Partition Plan

Thursday 1 November 2007, by Fawwaz Traboulsi

In the United States much of the criticism of the Iraq war, whether from the left or from the right, is focused on the mismanagement and corruption that "has been at the center of the entire mission, from war-waging to nation-building" (Frank Rich, NY Times, Week in Review, October 21, 2007). Only a small part of the criticism, and only from the left, is seriously questioning the fundamental interests driving American intervention in Iraq and the Middle East in general.

In Arab countries by contrast, much of the criticism of the Iraq war has focused on the basic objectives of US policy in the Middle East, i.e. what Arab commentators frequently call the "American project" for the region. But Arab criticism is marred by several shortcomings: the goals and the unintended consequences of the "American project" are often conflated, and, more seriously, policies made in the US (and the West in general) are often magnified or bent to fit fanciful explanations.

A case in point is what Arab commentators have made of the recent US Senate vote in support of a plan to turn Iraq into a loose confederation of three regions. For many of them, as Traboulsi discusses below, there is a tendency to turn what is mostly speculation about American policy into irrefutable proof of American goals in the Middle East.

Whoever refuses to conform to the current trend that says the US Administration has decided to break up Iraq into three separate states cannot hope for much popularity among political pundits or even among readers. Nonetheless, anyone who seeks to carefully determine the goals of the American empire, its policies and available means to achieve them, cannot but go against the current trend.

Let us begin with the obvious. The vote in the US Senate on September 26 in favor of Senator Biden’s and Senator Brownback’s amendment to partition Iraq is not binding for the US president and the rest of his administration. Moreover, the Biden-Brownback amendment in itself does not entail the partition of Iraq in the sense of breaking up the state that has existed since 1920 into three separate states: a Shiite state in the south, a Sunni state in the center, and a Kurdish state in the north.

The Biden-Brownback amendment calls for the transformation of Iraq into a loose confederation of three regions, based on the sectarian and ethnic divisions that the US has adopted in its policies regarding Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.

It is worth recalling that the Iraqi constitution itself includes a clause defining Iraq as a federation, with the right of any of its 18 provinces to constitute itself as a self-governing federal entity within this federation. It is also worth noting that the three northern provinces controlled by the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani — are already operating as a de facto separate federal entity. The separatist trend among Kurds has increased over the years, notwithstanding the strong opposition to it, both regional (from Iran and Turkey) and internal within Iraq itself.

None of the preceding implies that we should submit to an American diktat on this matter. Any unilateral imperial decision taken by the US Senate should be opposed, as a flagrant intrusion in Iraq’s internal affairs contradicting the Iraqi people’s right to self-determination and right to freely choose their own political system. The US Senate’s vote in that sense constitutes a precedent that calls for the strongest possible protest from the Iraqi government, other governments, and world public opinion.

But the US Senate’s vote in itself is flimsy evidence that the US Administration has resolved to break up Iraq into three separate states. Invoking it as proof of a breakup plan is based on dubious assumptions, unsupported by any persuasive argument.

The first of these dubious assumptions is that American interests in controlling Iraqi oil and its privatization will be better served by the creation of three separate states or geographic entities, rather than by a federal Iraq or even by a centralized Iraqi state firmly controlled by the United States. There is much speculation about how American plans are being drawn up in view of the fact that most of the oil fields and the largest oil reserves are first to be found in the southern part of the country, and then in the northern part, while the central part where most of the Sunni Arabs live has the smallest share of the oil wealth. Such plans are far from being without effect on the ground, to be sure; indeed, we should pay close attention to all the proposals originating from American ruling circles and think-tanks regarding a "partition light" of Iraq’s oil wealth in order to better control it. But none of these plans makes a conclusive case that the US has decided for an outright breakup of Iraq into three states.

Be that as it may, the fundamental question is how the strategic interests of the United States can be furthered by the breakup of Iraq into three states. Let’s consider the southern part, for example. Will American hegemony in the Middle East be helped by the emergence of a separate state in southern Iraq? Such a state will have a Shiite majority, naturally looking for good relations with Iran on its eastern border. By comparison, the oil-producing emirates of the Gulf have far less human and military resources. The result will be a dominant Shiite alliance in the Gulf, with Iran bringing to bear its demographic and geographic depth, its military capabilities, and its own enormous oil resources now supplemented by the oil resources of the southern Iraqi state — let alone that Iran is also on the verge of acquiring a nuclear-energy option. Isn’t such a scenario completely antithetical to the aim of American hegemony in the Gulf region alone? If it ever materializes, will it not seriously undermine the economic, military, and strategic dominance of the United States?

The growing obsession among Arab commentators regarding a looming break-up of the Iraqi state, as a legal administrative entity, overlooks the crux of the problem. The real danger threatening Iraq today — which deserves not only our concerns but all our efforts to resist it and to propose alternative solutions — is elsewhere: This is the danger of a human fragmentation and the breakup of Iraqi society.

There has been no public outcry that demands from the various Iraqi parties, whether with or against the government, that they answer for what they have done or not done to prevent such a human fragmentation. Who, among the partisans of a centralized state in Iraq, has called to account SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [now called the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC]) for its declared project of establishing a separate state in the south and center of Iraq? Who is demanding from the organizations of the insurgency an accounting for what they have done to rebuild Iraqi unity at a human level, at least among Shiites and Sunnis? Who is undertaking a frank assessment of the choices faced by the Kurdish people, between complete secession and the legitimate right for a separate federal region within an Iraqi federation?

Aren’t these the tasks that we need to tackle to prevent a disintegration of Iraqi society? Shouldn’t we reject the sectarian and ethnic designations that the US occupation has fashioned for the Iraqis? And why can’t the call for an Arab-Kurdish federation be our answer, at least in a transitional phase, to the plans cooked up in Washington for Iraq?

Failing these tasks will be our real shame and for which we will pay in blood!!

Article by Fawwaz Traboulsi pusblished in the Beirut daily as-Safir of October 4, 2007.

Fawwaz Traboulsi has taught at the Lebanese American University, Beirut-Lebanon. He has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. His most recent book in English is A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007). The translator, Assaf Kfoury, is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University.

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