Iraq's partition fantasy

Reidar Visser
18 May 2006

A feature of political discussion of Iraq in recent weeks has been another flurry of propaganda by United States politicians in favour of dividing Iraq into three statelets or semi-independent federal entities. "Soft partition", "controlled division" or an "extension of the federal idea to the Sunni community" are but a few of the euphemisms that have been marshalled in support of this sort of exercise.

The schemes are strikingly similar, and their proponents indefatigable: Iraq is dismissed as an "artificial entity"; its "proper" and "natural" constituent components are instead identified as three ethno-religious communities – Shi'a Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

In fact, Iraqi history fails to support such ideas – and particularly the notion that it should be necessary to enforce barriers between the Sunni and Shi'a Arabs. Quite the contrary, if the pundits who urge partition had bothered to check what actually happened when centrifugal forces were pushed to the maximum in the south of Iraq in the 1920s, they would have seen that regionalism, not sectarianism, has historically been the main competitor to Iraqi nationalism south of Baghdad – and a feeble one at that.

The idea of tripartite break-up, on the other hand finds little resonance in Iraqi history. In testimony to their sublime artificiality, contemporary partitionist misnomers like "Shi'istan" and "Sunnistan" are altogether absent from the historical record; like much of the pro-partition advocacy they exist solely in the minds of outsiders who base their entire argument on far-fetched parallels to European political experiences.

Basra's precedent

In the early 1920s, for the first and so far the only time in Iraqi history, an actual attempt at separating the south from Baghdad was launched. This came soon after Britain had initiated a mandate administration to prepare the former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul for nationhood as a unitary state. But the composition of the southern separatist elite of the 1920s – and the geographical scope of their project – should give today's partitionists pause for thought.

For this was not a clergy-driven attempt at establishing some sort of Shi'a state. Instead, it was a scheme to create a small merchant republic on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, a pro-British enclave that would cover Basra and the strategic coastal strip between the Gulf and the delta of the great Mesopotamian rivers north to Qurna only.

Moreover, it was an emphatically cosmopolitan enterprise: Arabs, Persians, Indians and Jews came together in pursuit of the Basra separatist movement. Sunni Arab emigrants from Najd were the moving spirits. The Shi'a Arabs, for their part, actually had their greatest numerical strength in the vast former Ottoman province of Baghdad (and not in Basra, as many of today's partitionists seem to believe); apart from a few pro-separation figures based in the immediate vicinity of the city of Basra they remained totally aloof from the secessionist bid.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website, historiae.org

Even though it constituted the most concerted domestic "southern" challenge to the territorial integrity of Iraq in 20th-century history, the Basra separation movement ended in fiasco. The separatists were the richest men of Basra – owners of enormous tracts of fertile date gardens and successful businessmen with networks extending into other parts of the world – and yet, they were unable to muster popular support for their daring enterprise.

Who was their enemy? An authoritarian regime in Baghdad with the military means to drive home its own megalomaniac ideas about Iraqi nationalism? A British colonial machine with a singularity of purpose so entrenched as to make impossible any challenges to London's preferred vision of a unified Iraq? Far from it. The Iraqi government apparatus of the 1920s was decidedly flimsy, and throughout the period of the mandate, the British would periodically contemplate scuttling "back to Basra". Both these forces would have had trouble in stemming the separatist project if it had in fact enjoyed universal local support.

No, it was the young men of Basra – impecunious and landless as they may have been – who defeated the separatist project, by presenting a competing and very different vision for the future. Many of them had been employed as civil servants in late Ottoman times, and had colleagues from the areas further north. Among themselves – and Ottoman documents prove this beyond doubt – they had referred to the territory between Basra and Samarra (and sometimes even Mosul) as "Iraq" long before 1914, quite contrary to the baseless but now widespread idea that there had been no sense of connection between Basra and Baghdad before the British.

Armed with this "Iraq" concept, the young intelligentsia converted the south to Iraqi nationalism at an early stage, with schools, newspapers and voluntary associations – not extortion or the use of force – as their principal instruments. The process was more universal in the south than in the north of Iraq, but even in the Kurdish areas there have been considerable regional variations with regard to relations with Baghdad, and in historical perspective only Sulaimaniya has an unbroken record of antipathy to the Iraqi capital.

Iraq's realities

This dualism – tentative regionalisms and quite robust Iraqi nationalism – is reflected in today's situation. Once more, if enthusiastic armchair partitionists in the west had cared to investigate the specific policy proposals of their would-be "Shi'a autonomists", they would have discovered yet another misfit between their own map and the landscapes of Iraqi reality. For, contrary to what westerners commonly think, the most longstanding post-war southern challenge to the paradigm of a unitary Iraqi state structure has been of a regionalist rather than a sectarian character.

Ever since summer 2004, local politicians in the oil-rich triangle of Basra, Amara and Nasiriya have advocated the establishment of a small-scale federal entity limited to these three southernmost provinces of Iraq – in other words, a subdivision of the Shi'a territories, by Shi'a who say they have had enough of domination by other, "northern" Shi'a. The idea of a single Shi'a canton from Baghdad to the Gulf, on the other hand, is a more recent phenomenon, dating back only to summer 2005, when a caucus of Shi'a politicians from central Iraq, mostly returned exiles, began promoting it.

While western observers soon became enthralled by the project, ordinary Iraqi Shi'a have proven more difficult to convince, and grassroots activity in support of this sectarian scheme has remained limited. In the Kurdish-dominated north the urge towards autonomy is far more widespread, but here too, perceptible regional differences – in this case between east and west – remain. They pose another challenge to neat ethnic categorisations whose principal virtue seems to be their soothing effects on the minds of western politicians.

Moreover, just as in the 1920s the alternative to decentralisation – Iraqi nationalism – remains flourishing. Even today, in a climate of growing sectarian terrorism calculated to obliterate the idea of coexistence, many Iraqis stubbornly refuse to reveal their ethno-religious identity when interrogated by western journalists. Many simply say they are "Iraqis" – an answer that tends to cause consternation among interviewers who expect more specific answers.

Among several key Iraqi leaders who never went into exile abroad, the situation is much the same. "Federalism" appears not to exist in the vocabulary of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – who consistently emphasises national "unity" in his official pronouncements – and Muqtada al-Sadr's radical Islamism comes with a strong Iraqi nationalist component that foreigners often overlook.

In sum, then, the process of regionalisation in Iraq is far more tentative and open-ended than the orderly caricature maps currently bandied about in western think-tanks would indicate. But those partition schemes are more than a distortion of Iraqi history and today's realities. They also demonstrate flagrant contempt for the fragile democratic process which is underway in Iraq. This is rather ironic, given that many of those who advocate partition take pride in describing themselves as staunch opponents of "neo-imperialisms" of all descriptions.

But where many British colonial administrators at least had the tact to confine their worst excesses of impromptu line-drawing to sparsely populated desert areas, today's hobby-artists do not shy away from using even complex urban landscapes as canvas for their reckless activities. They simply do not seem to grasp the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of their demand that the Iraqis be divided into three mutually exclusive identity-categories.

Also in openDemocracy on modern Iraq's history and politics:

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq, Britain, and the United States: new perspectives, old problems"
(3 June 2003)

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Omar A Omar, "Kirkuk: microcosm of Iraq"
(21 March 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph"
(16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Iraq's constitution on the edge" (22 August 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

Anwar Rizvi, "Iraq: civil war or no civil war? " (10 April 2006)

The west's blindness

A better option for westerners interested in a debate which first and foremost is an Iraqi matter would be to take note of the constitutional mechanisms already in place for delimitating future federal units – and to engage in a more gradualist fashion with the problems likely to emerge precisely because of Iraq's untidy history and lack of clear-cut ethnic fault-lines.

Article 115 of the Iraqi constitution sets out that aspirant regional entities may achieve federal status through referenda in the areas "that wish to create a region". But what if several competing visions materialise – as the complex past history would indeed seem to suggest as a likely outcome? What if Basra with its oil refineries wants to go it alone, while some in neighbouring Dhi Qar incline towards federation with their big brother, and oil-deficient Najaf would prefer to control both by using Shi'ism as political ideology?

What are the implications of the lax requirements for calling a referendum, whereby comparatively small factions in local councils or the governorate populations at large (33% and 10% respectively) may challenge existing administrative borders and launch referendums and, conceivably, counter-referenda?

And what happens if a referendum fails and Iraqi nationalism once more prevails – can the challenge to the unitary state be repeated, and if so when?

If no checks are established here, Iraqi politics might easily degenerate into a perpetual cycle of referenda, with politicians frenetically probing for facile answers in a cultural tapestry that above all has proven complex and resistant to disentanglement procedures.

On these and other issues, the Iraqi constitutional framework has yet to provide clear answers. This is also where outsiders interested in the Iraqi transition process should properly expend their energies and contribute to debate, instead of undemocratically enforcing their own black-and-white thinking and fully-fledged federal models on a land whose people can draw on a centuries-long local tradition of multiethnic coexistence.

Partitionist quick-fixes designed along unimaginative ethno-religious lines would pull in the opposite direction of coexistence. They would constitute a cowardly cave-in to those foreign terrorists who for three years straight have unsuccessfully tried to blow up the sturdy social fabric of Iraq. The crude maps that accompany the break-up propaganda are an affront to the complex historical experiences they claim to represent, and encapsulate a continuous and highly disturbing trend towards the complete expropriation of the Iraqi transition process.

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