If you look at recent polls, Shia support for partition runs around two per cent, while the majority, 56 per cent, support a strong centralized state. Some Shias in the south may want to create regional blocks, but this is more an expression of regional culture than sectarianism—they just don’t like Baghdad, the way western Canadians don’t like Ottawa. The Sunnis, for their part, want a unified, centrally controlled government because they view themselves as the country’s natural governing class. In fact, many Sunnis don’t view themselves as Sunni, just Iraqi. This is especially true in Baghdad, where every Sunni I know has a Shia parent or grandparent—until recently class was the primary division in Baghdad, not sect. The Sunnis think of themselves as Iraqi in the way that Torontonians think of themselves as Canadian, not English-Canadian—it’s the other guys who are hyphenated.
The much-repeated line that Iraq is a phony country made up by colonial powers is itself a myth. Indeed, I’m always amazed by the extent of Iraqi nationalism in Arab Iraq, a nationalism that coexists with sectarian suspicions but which is very real. The historian Reidar Visser has written extensively about this, especially the diverse Shia sense of being Iraqi, and the long history of Iraq as a governed unit. But it is too complex an argument to be put forward in the media, and blaming previous colonial governments is easy. As Visser points out, U.S. Democratic party supporters have found the argument for partition to be a convenient solution for a problem they have no clue how to solve, but which makes them sound less clueless and cruel than saying, “Forget the Iraqis, let’s leave.”
But foreign interference in Iraq has greatly exacerbated the divisiveness among the various groups, which were already suffering years of grinding dictatorship under which citizens and sect were played off against each other. The process that began during the Saddam era has now turned into civil war—with outside help. Early on, the American-controlled occupying government created a “Governing Council” organized on sectarian lines, with money being funnelled through various groups according to their “ethno-sectarian” divisions. This only increased existing divisions, and once an actual Iraqi government was elected it governed purely along sectarian lines.
Ironically, the recent American support for Sunni militias is itself a classic Balkan solution to an Iraqi problem. In 1994, the U.S. quietly helped to build up the Croatian army, allowing the Croats to sweep through Serb-held Krajina the following year, viciously cleansing it of the Serbs. The newly pumped-up Croats then acted as a counterbalance to Serbian power; this, in turn, brought Slobodan Milosevic to the table and led to the signing of the Dayton peace accord. Today, the Sunni tribes are the Croats, backed by the U.S. and presenting an increasing military threat to the Shia government, which at some point may have to rely on Iran to defend itself.
To call this “Yugoslav solution” a risky strategy in Iraq is an understatement. Once the Sunnis are free of their own civil war with al-Qaeda, and are no longer wasting their strength fighting U.S. forces, you will see the re-emergence of the same coalition of Sunnis that supported Saddam, but which is increasily allied with the U.S. military. And then? My guess is that there will be a series of well-orchestrated assassinations of Shia government officials, especially in the Interior Ministry, who are viewed as responsible for killing Sunnis and the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. The U.S. will be unable to stop this, just as in the aftermath of the invasion it was unable to stop the Shia parties from hunting down and killing former Baathists. Nor will there be much incentive for the Americans to step in, since the Sunnis will also target anyone in the government or government-sponsored militias who have close ties to Iran. When Prime Minister Maliki says he’s reluctant to have the tribal militias gain too much power, he knows that the old Saddam cadres of Republican Guards and intelligence officers with a base among the tribal militias in Anbar will be coming into Baghdad for a little payback. It will be a proxy war against Iran, masked by warring sectarian militias. And this is just the kind of problem partitioning the country cannot solve. [complete article]