Leslie H. Gelb on How to Save Iraq

Walking to school amid a Baghdad bombing: the U.S. pullout has not calmed unrest. Elliott D. Woods / Redux

In early 2006, then-senator Joe Biden and I discussed Iraq for three unbothered hours while our shuttle to Washington idled on the LaGuardia tarmac. We agreed that without an internal political solution, Iraq would sooner or later tumble into bloody civil war. Too many Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds just simply hated each other. And we agreed that only one political plan stood a chance of working—federalism. Federalism is not partition. It is the tried and true means of allowing peoples who don’t trust each other to live together in one country by decentralizing power. Today federalism remains Iraq’s only hope for peace.

Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have been at each other’s throats for centuries. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis brutally ran the show in Iraq, though they were a minority and Shiites the majority. After the U.S. invasion, Shiites won nationwide elections and have since attempted to impose their rule nationwide. What’s absolutely clear is that Kurds, in their largely autonomous northern region, and Sunni Arabs, in Iraq’s center, flat out won’t accept Shiite domination. As Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began to tighten his control over the country some months ago, the killings mounted—and would have regardless of whether American troops remained in country.

The idea behind federalism is to keep Iraq united by decentralizing power on a regional basis. This would provide each ethno-religious group the authority to run its own regional affairs, while the central government tends to national interests. The first step would be to establish semiautonomous regions or states with power to make and administer their own laws and provide for internal security. Thereby, Kurds and Sunnis would be protected from Shiite-imposed rule. Cities with mixed religious populations could be governed as federal cities under international protection. The central government would conduct foreign affairs, create a national army to guard borders, and manage oil production and revenues. Revenues would be distributed according to each group’s percentage of the total population. Thus Sunni Arabs would be guaranteed 20 percent of revenues even though their region has far less than 20 percent of the country’s oil. Of course, whether and how to advance the federal formula would be left up to Iraqis.

To those who see this as a radical approach: look at Iraq’s Constitution. It provides for such a federal structure, but requires some spelling out of details. The main sticking point at present is the Shiite insistence of running the whole country from Baghdad.

Shiites are right about one thing—it is critical to keep Iraq whole. Otherwise it would become prey to neighbors like Iran or the scene of endless civil war. But the Shiites are dead wrong about being able to achieve unity by centralized “power sharing” in Baghdad. That’s been the approach since Americans took charge, and it hasn’t worked for two reasons: Shiites never really share power. And power remains concentrated in Baghdad.

Federalism preserved the peace for Bosnia reached at Dayton. Serbs, Muslims, and Croats were allowed mostly to run their own affairs, and even, until a few years ago, keep their own armies. Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates have remained whole and peaceful by the same means. And don’t forget that our own United States could have been created only on this basis. The 13 original states joined the union only on the constitutional guarantee that they could run most of their own affairs. Washington didn’t take on its present powers until Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, 150 years later.

Instead of helping Iraqis implement federalism and save themselves, Republicans attack President Obama for a “premature” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Never mind that it was President George W. Bush who first agreed to total troop withdrawal by 2012. Now it’s past time to put this political nonsense aside and encourage Iraq to federalize and stay whole—and thus both peaceful and able to resist Iran. Such an Iraq would give Americans something to be proud of, whatever our differences over the invasion.

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