Chuck Spinney: Divide Iraq? Get a Brain….

Ethics, Government
Chuck Spinney
Chuck Spinney

Should the West Partition Iraq?

Some people still cling to the belief that a formal partition of Iraq into three states — sometimes referred to as Shiastan, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan — would cure the chaos the United States created when it invaded Iraq in the Spring of 2003.  Partition is a simple idea that grabs the imagination. But the nation-building wannabes inside the beltway have a poor track record when it comes to creating designer nations in the Middle East.

Attached herewith is an exchange between Ambassador Edward Peck and the historian William R. Polk.  Together, they explain succinctly why the principle of parsimony does not hold when it comes to Iraq: there is no Occam’s Razor to cut through the mess we created in Iraq.  Moreover, as Polk suggests, the destructive effects accompanying partition will continue the spillover into Syria and Turkey.  And while Lebanon is not mentioned, what affects Syria affects Lebanon and the Palestinian question.

(Each has graciously given me permission to distribute their exchange. Explanatory Note, The following text refers to the adherents of Shia sect of Islam as ‘Shia.’  Technically, ‘Shia’ is an adjective, but it is used as a noun in most American writings.  The corresponding noun is ‘Shii.’  but the noun form is used rarely; so avoid any confusion, this paper adopts the convention of using the term “Shia” as if it were both a noun and an adjective.)

Chuck Spinney


On 31 August 2015, Ambassador Edward Peck wrote

Note: Ambassador Edward Peck is a retired foreign service officer who specialized in the Arab world between 1956 and 1989, with many postings abroad as well as in Washington. Overseas, he was Chief of Mission in Iraq and Mauritania, and an Embassy Officer in Sweden, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt.  In Washington, he served as Deputy Director of the Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism at the Reagan White House; at State, Deputy Coordinator for Global Covert Intelligence Programs; Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs; Director, Egyptian Affairs; Liaison Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon  Shortly after 9-11, he argued against the invasion of Iraq in a CNN Crossfire Interview (8 October 2001), asking “when you take out Saddam Hussein, what happens after that? And we don’t have a clue. Nobody knows, but it's probably going to be bad. A lot of people are going to be very upset, because our role in this world does not include deciding who rules Iraq.” [transcript].   


Those who understood in realistic terms what the ‘nation' of Iraq really was could have predicted with confidence exactly what would happen if Saddam was removed.  Many tried, but were ignored by those who were absolutely certain they knew better or did not really care about the results.   The first group did not want to be proven right, but was.  The second group was totally wrong, and the already massive, widespread, disastrous consequences of their actions will probably have to be cataloged by historians.

In the meantime, some still believe that the ongoing catastrophe can be resolved by a simplistic step: Partition. The history of that process in Africa, India/Pakistan, Sudan, former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, Ireland, provides compelling evidence of how partition works in the real world.  They have often been very bloody, residual tensions always remain and in many cases intensify. Some people managed to get across the frontiers alive; far more died or became refugees.  Moreover, in the least disastrous cases of partition and population exchange, only two groups were involved, and that condition does not apply to Iraq, in spades.

There is talk of a Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan.  Forget for a moment Turkey's multiple, uncompromising declarations, and current underlining actions, that there will never be a Kurdistan, and consider where people who are not viewed or accepted as members of those three groups will go.  There are several, some of them large, and the Big Three have already victimized them: Yazidi, Mandean, Shabak, Turkmen, Jewish, Christian, and more. Where will they go, how will they get there, and what will happen to those who manage to get to wherever they are displaced?

By definition, the multiple, complicated, dangerous and bloody problems in the Middle East do not lend themselves to simple solutions.  Even if the three-way partition of Iraq had any chance of meaningful success, wherever the new borders are will be subject to the reactions of those on the inside as well as those in other countries where similar populations and problems exist and will persist.

The point of this dissertation is that what's-her-name's box has been opened, and the lid thrown away.  As much as it's needed, and wanted, there is no workable short-term solution available.  The current tragic situation benefits no one, and is very likely to get much worse before it gets any better.  I profoundly hope I am wrong.

On 1 Sep 2015, William R. Polk’s response

[William R. Polk, is a prominent historian specializing in the Islamic world and guerrilla warfare and is well known to most readers on this list.  His bio can be found on his website and several  of his essays are posted on this page of the Blaster blog.]


Thank you for your note of warning.

I have written about many of the factors relating to the partition issue in the book I did with George McGovern on how to get Out of Iraq (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), my book Understanding Iraq  (New York: HarperCollins, 2005 & 2006), and in my Open Letter to the President in the Nation (19 October 2009).

As you point out, positions on the issue of Iraq were both fixed and simplistic.  To the best of my knowledge, there never has been any informed or open-minded discussion.

You point, briefly, at the problems that would be involved in what some commentators advocate, partition.  But advocacy for imposed partition remains in the public eye. After all, it seems, at least at first sight, so logical:  Iraq is a mess, the Iraqis don’t get along and the country is “artificial.”

So now, let me comment on the proposal for partition:

Before the American invasion, partition would have been much more difficult than it became.  That is because the populations of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra were mixed.  When I lived there in the 1950s, my neighbors were Sunnis, Shias, Christians, even one Jew and both Arabs and Kurds.  Today, after the horrible episodes of ethnic and religious/ethnic “cleansing,” neighborhoods are practically homogeneous. Minorities have been driven out or murdered.   However, that is not the end of the story:  villages and towns, each of which may today be homogenous, are juxtaposed to others nearby that are at least religiously different.  So, any plan to divide Iraq would have to carry even further the displacement of populations.

And, the populations don’t fit exactly in the “natural” and historical devisions.  The Sunnis, still a powerful group in Iraqi society, would have no city:  Not much is left of Falluja and it was never a great center;  Basra and Baghdad are today Shia (Karbala always had been);  and Mosul is racially, religiously and culturally complex.  The Sunni Arabs and even the Turkomans would not be able to live easily or even securely  in Kirkuk.  So, as I see it, division is a recipe for further pain and suffering.  That is point number 1.

Point number 2 is that the splitting up of Iraq would be to create a new “Balkans.”  There would be considerable potential for war among the three states.  Not only would the populations have deep and bitter memories of one another, but the states would vary greatly in current wealth and potential wealth. Whatever area is assigned to the Sunnis probably has little actual wealth, although there is considerable potential for oil production north and west of Mosul.  The Kurds are relatively well off in terms of oil and water.  Oil is still flowing, and Kurdistan has a lot of water for agriculture.  The Iraqi Kurdish population is relatively unified (despite linguistic and other divisions from their Kurdish “brothers” just beyond the current frontiers).  The Shias would have the bulk of the resources.  The potential for oil in the south is enormous  and, for what it’s worth, the Shias have access to the sea.  So, I suggest that it is predictable that there will be ample grounds for friction and much of it.  That, I would argue, is neither in the interest of the “Iraqis” as a whole or any part of them.  Partition certainly is not, as some have argued, a recipe for peace and stability.  So, it should not be seen to be in our interest either.

Peripheral to this point are several external issues:

They begin with, it is a virtual certainty that Iraqi Kurdistan would be unable to stay out of the affairs and aspirations of Iranian, Syrian and, above all, Turkish Kurdish areas.  So, unless or until a complete “Kurdistan” is created, partial measures will almost certainly produce continual  friction  among themselves, their non-Kurdish neighbors  and with Turkey.

The relationship of Shia “Iraq,” that is Basra and Baghdad provinces, to Iran raises a number of issues including potential friction with Saudi Arabia and even with little but rich Kuwait, both of which have long feared Iran and would probably seek to “destabilize” the Shia alliance. There is a long history of wars over this issue during Ottoman and Safavid times.  Even if they have long since been forgotten, the issues that caused them remain.

The Sunni Arab area is already under attack by the Islamic State. If it were set adrift, no one could predict what would happen.  In fear of its richer Shia and Kurdish areas, it might willingly join the Sunni Arab Islamic State, or it might fight a desperate war to keep separate.  Either way, peace will be elusive and even more people will be harmed.

Point number 3 is that arrogating the right to set up, divide or reform other states is a policy that we (under President Wilson in the build-up to the Paris Peace Conference) and Britain (under Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary in 1920) did that was bitterly resented by those on whom they operated.  Perhaps inevitably, if ironically, it was both premature (in that it was effected before conditions for its “success” did not yet exist)  and too late (in that the events it was meant to head off had already transpired).  Something like that policy has been resurrected and made more politically correct by being renamed “nation building” and/or “regime  change.”   Under whatever name,  it is still, it seems to me, exactly what America should not be doing.   I believe it is morally wrong.  But even if one sets aside our proclaimed national principles, it is unwise.  We are not smart enough, and today we are not liked enough to have our policies accepted without threats or force or vast amounts of money.  President Wilson could get away with it; we cannot.  Going down that road leads only to unending hostility.

If, on the contrary, without our overt or covert involvement, moves toward some sort of a federation of Iraq are made by some plausible collection of local authorities, we should still look carefully and soberly at it.  What seems wise or even clever at the moment may look very different a short time later.  If to the best of our judgment, it seems to be based on self-evident logic and has sufficient local support, we  (but  preferably not unilaterally) should consider what we  might do to assuage the pain and, perhaps, to grease the points of friction.  But, to the maximum extent the Congress will allow us to do, we should stay in the background.  That is, we should  support the UN in carrying out the task of “peace seeking” and then of “peace keeping.”  We should remind ourselves constantly that even if we did them for the best of motives, our ventures into running other people’s societies have ended badly.  (The title, though not the text, of Peter van Buren’s book catches the theme, We Meant Well.)  Arguably, and I fear rightly, we didn’t often even mean “well” except for what at the moment seemed to us to be in our own short-term interests, or we could not think of anything else to do.  Where are there examples of moves toward what I have called “affordable world security?”  Quick fixes instead of  finding lasting solutions describes much of our venture in world affairs over the last generation.   Therefore, I think we need to be as cautious as possible, so that our government employees do not blunder into what seems at least to them a clever move.

To try to avoid leaping before looking, Churchill (for all of his faults and the myopia of his brand of imperialism) had the bright idea at the end of World War I of getting together all of the main ‘players,’  even including some of the natives, to discuss what should be done, in British imperial interests, of course.  Is it beyond our wit to do something similar to examine carefully and responsibly Iraqi interests, safety and peace today?

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