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Plan Floated to Divide Iraq Along Ethnic Lines

October 24, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: There were calls today from American officials for Iraqis to take a stronger role running their own country. They came as the issue of Iraq continued to stir the midterm election rhetoric here, as well as propel our conversation series on what to do next in Iraq.

Last night’s was on ending the occupation. Tonight, it’s decentralizing Iraq along ethnic lines.

Two weeks ago, Iraq’s parliament passed a law that would allow the creation of autonomous Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions, each controlling their own affairs. A major proponent of this is Peter Galbraith, a former State Department official who’s advised Iraqi Kurdish leaders on political issues. He’s also author of “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.” I talked with him earlier today from London.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

PETER GALBRAITH, Former State Department Official: Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: You favor a form of decentralized partition for Iraq. Why?

PETER GALBRAITH: The country has already broken up. And actually, I’m opposed to using U.S. resources to try to put it back together again.

Kurdistan in the north is already a de facto independent state. It has its own elected government. It has its own army. It flies its own flag. The Iraqi army is not allowed to go to Kurdistan. The Iraqi flag is banned there.

The Shiite south is governed by the Shiite religious parties who enforce an Iranian-style Islamic law with militias. It’s also not governed from Baghdad.

Baghdad itself is the front line of a civil war divided between a Shiite east and a Sunni west, and the Sunni center is a battleground between the coalition and Sunni insurgents.

So the country has already broken up, and this result is actually incorporated into the Iraqi constitution. The constitution creates a virtually powerless center — it doesn’t even have the power to tax — and very strong regions that are allowed to have their own armies, where regional law is superior to central government law on almost all matters, and where the regions have substantial control of their own oil.

So if that’s the result that has been endorsed by the Iraqi people, I don’t see why the United States should try to put the country back together.

Dividing into three nations

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
Allowing each group to run their own affairs, it's not going to solve the problem, but it provides the best opportunity to minimize it.

JIM LEHRER: So specifically, then, you would divide it into three independent nations?

PETER GALBRAITH: I think eventually Kurdistan will become an independent country. This is the result that is desired by almost all the Kurdish people. They voted in January 2005 in a referendum 98 percent for independence.

But as with regard to whether the Sunnis and Shiites have separate states, both of these groups consider themselves as Iraqi. The trouble is they have very different visions of what Iraq should be, and that's why, if you keep a unified Arab Iraq, it seems to me that that's a formula for endless war.

If you allow each of these entities to have very substantial self-government or, perhaps if they so choose, independence, it seems to me that that is a better way for each of these communities to protect their own interests and a way to minimize conflict.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, they would have no reason to fight anymore?

PETER GALBRAITH: There's going to be fighting over the boundaries, but right now there's a full-scale civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites over the control of Arab Iraq. Allowing each group to run their own affairs, it's not going to solve the problem, but it provides the best opportunity to minimize it.

Unifying a divided people

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
It's not realistic to think that Iraqi security forces can end sectarian fighting, because it's a civil war and the Iraqi security forces are themselves partisans in the civil war. They're either Shiite or Sunni.

JIM LEHRER: As you know, the Sunnis have opposed this on the grounds that most of the oil is in Kurdistan and in the south where the Shiites would be in control. Under your plan, how would you deal with that problem?

PETER GALBRAITH: The Iraqi constitution has a formula for the distribution of oil revenues which gives the oil revenues to each of these regions in accordance with population. And I think that that is at least a suitable interim solution.

There probably is oil in the Sunni areas. The problem with Iraq is that most of its territory has not been explored, and there just hasn't been much exploration in the Sunni areas.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your position that the United States and its coalition allies have been trying to impose a unified Iraq on a group of people that do not want to be unified?

PETER GALBRAITH: That's certainly true of the Kurds, who not only don't want to be part of Iraq, but actually they hate Iraq. They see it as the country that committed genocide against them. The Shiites have also chosen a very decentralized form of state, and so there's really no reason to bring them back under the fold of a central government, either.

President Bush says our goal in Iraq is a unified and democratic Iraq. But, in fact, he's not willing to do two things that would be essential to bringing about that result. The first would be to disarm the Shiite militias and the theocratic governments that exist in the south. And the second would be to use U.S. troops as the police to end the civil war in Baghdad and other mixed areas.

It's not realistic to think that Iraqi security forces can end sectarian fighting, because it's a civil war and the Iraqi security forces are themselves partisans in the civil war. They're either Shiite or Sunni.

The role of the United States

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
Our ability to influence events in Iraq is extremely limited. I see no purpose for a continued U.S. presence in the Shiite southern half of Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Does the United States have a role to play in getting this done if, in fact, the president and the administration should decide to adopt what you're suggesting and carry out what is in the constitution of Iraq? Does the U.S. have a role to play in this or should they just leave?

PETER GALBRAITH: Our ability to influence events in Iraq is extremely limited. I see no purpose for a continued U.S. presence in the Shiite southern half of Iraq.

It is true that, if we withdraw, it will be theocratic. It will not apply the human rights provisions in the Iraqi constitution, and it will be dominated by Iran. But that's the case now, and we aren't going to do anything to change it.

And if we're not going to end the civil war in Baghdad, which would require us to become the police in the city, I see no point in us remaining.

I do think that we can do two things: First, we can assist in negotiating the borders of the regions, particularly as between the Arabs and the Kurds, because we have considerable influence in Kurdistan. And, second, in our own interest, we need to be sure that al-Qaida and other Sunni terrorist organizations like it are not able to establish a base in the Sunni area.

The current strategy for trying to do that, which involves using what we call Iraqi troops to fight Sunni insurgents, but which in reality are Shiite troops, obviously is not working. The alternative would be to encourage the Sunnis to form their own region, with their own army, as allowed by Iraq's constitution, and to assist that region and that regional army in fighting the insurgents.

I would add one other part to this piece, which is that we cannot be sure that a Sunni region will be able to defeat the insurgency or will have the will to do it. We know the current strategy won't work, but we can't be sure the alternative will work. And for that reason, as an insurance policy, I would keep a small force in Kurdistan that could intervene against al-Qaida, should it try to establish a base in the Sunni-Arab area.

A timeline for changes

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
The civil war is likely to continue for a prolonged period of time, but I believe that the U.S. should extricate itself from parts of the country as quickly as possible because we're not doing any good.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, using your plan as a guideline, do you see -- is there an ideal time line-type of scenario that you would see unfolding that could actually resolve this thing peacefully over a period of time?

PETER GALBRAITH: This thing is not going to be resolved peacefully. The civil war is likely to continue for a prolonged period of time, but I believe that the U.S. should extricate itself from parts of the country as quickly as possible because we're not doing any good. We're not doing anything to contain the civil war.

So I would say we could withdraw from the Shiite south immediately, and we could withdraw rapidly from Baghdad. Setting up a Sunni region might take longer, but we should encourage that as quickly as possible. And then we would only be left with a residual force in Kurdistan.

JIM LEHRER: And the central government that now exists under the prime ministership of al-Maliki would just disappear?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, there might be some nominal central government, but the important point is that the central government right now doesn't govern anything. It doesn't govern the south; it doesn't govern Kurdistan; and it doesn't govern either the center or Baghdad.

One problem with many of the strategies being discussed is that they basically involve an ultimatum to the Iraqi government to get its act together or else we'll withdraw. But the Iraqi government, even if it could get its act together, wouldn't matter, because it has no influence outside of the Green Zone, or only minimal influence.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, good talking to you.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow evening we'll speak with Eric Davis, a professor of Middle East politics at Rutgers University, about fighting the violence in Iraq through economic projects.