Partitions in Practice

The Case Against Dividing Iraq

A bird flies away from a pile of leftover fencing near the U.S. Camp Adder, December 16, 2011. Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters

Earlier this year, Iraq’s parliament approved a new power-sharing government led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The move toward political inclusion was encouraging, especially as Iraqi forces continued to battle the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). For weeks, though, two key cabinet positions—Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior—remained unfilled. Onlookers held their breath as they waited to see whether Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians would be able to compromise on these all-important security posts.

The appointments, which were finally made in October, might represent a genuine attempt at reconciliation. The choice of Mohammed al-Ghabban, who belongs to the Badr Organization, as the new interior minister could be an adept way to bring hardliners into the fold. So, too, could the selection Khaled al-Obeidi as the new minister of defense be a genuine attempt at inclusivity. Obeidi previously served as an adviser to the governor of Nineveh Province. When Mosul fell to ISIS this summer, he emphasized the need for granting Iraq’s regions greater autonomy and even creating a separate Sunni Arab army.

Alternatively, the appointments might be run-of-the-mill bartering. And with violence showing no signs of abating, Iraq’s leaders will likely face considerable pressure from sectarian extremists. If the government of Iraq proves unable to get beyond sharing power through high-level appointments, it will only fuel the ongoing civil war and could lead to territorial partition along sectarian and ethnic lines.

At this point, partition might sound preferable to persistent sectarian conflict. U.S. policymakers were tempted by the idea at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war in 2006, when Joseph Biden, who was a senator at the time, and Leslie Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, advanced a plan for the “soft partition” of Iraq. In a 2006 Foreign Affairs roundtable focused on policy options for Iraq, Chaim Kaufmann, a well-known scholar of international relations, argued that only through separating the population would the violence end. This

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