Middle East


Iraq: Is a “Three-state solution” Viable?

A displaced Sunni woman sits at the entrance of her tent at a camp for displaced people in the region of Tarmieh, west of Baghdad. Since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February, which unleashed an unprecedented wave of sectarian violence, some 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes. (Photo: Wisam Sami / AFP-Getty Images)

The level of sectarian violence in Iraq has escalated in recent weeks, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of displaced persons and families. To quell the bloodshed, some are pointing to a proposal made three years ago to separate the country into three autonomous regions: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south. With the three groups separated, the presumption is that peace might have a chance to prevail in the troubled country.

This 'three-state solution' was first proposed in an op-ed published in The New York Times by Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 25, 2003.

In the U.K.'s Sunday Times (July 15) columnist Peter Galbraith agreed with the plan: "The partition of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'ite areas is the only route to peace. There is no good solution to the mess in Iraq. The country has broken up. The United States cannot put it back together again and cannot stop the civil war. The conventional wisdom holds that Iraq's break-up would be destabilizing and should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq's dismal history since Britain cobbled it together from three Ottoman provinces at the end of the first world war, it should be apparent that it is the effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabilizing.

"Pursuit of a coerced unity under Sunni-Arab domination — from the first British-installed king to the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in 2003 — has led to endless violence, repression and genocide. If the Shi'ite south forms a region, it can set up a theocratic government and establish a regional guard. Iran will be the dominant power and the Bush administration has no ability, and no intention, of countering Iran's position there. These are not welcome developments but they need not be catastrophic. For the United States and the world's Shi'ites (including the Iranians) have a common interest in defeating Al-Qaeda and its kindred Sunni fundamentalist movements.

"In sum: partition works as a political solution for Kurdistan, the Shi'ite south and the Sunni Arab center because it formalizes what has already taken place. By contrast, the American effort to build a unified state with a non-sectarian, non-ethnic police and army has not produced that result nor made much progress towards it."

Former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer concurred with this view in an interview published in Australia's Melbourne Herald Sun (July 25): "Likewise, it's inevitable the U.S. is going to have to realize there's going to be an effective de facto partition in Iraq: Kurdistan in the north, Sunni in the central west, and Shia in the eastern and southern parts of Iraq."

New Zealands's Scoop.co.nz (July 27) carried an article written by political commentator William Rivers Pitt with the headline, 'It has come down to this': "'Sectarian Break-Up of Iraq Is Now Inevitable, Admit Officials,' read the headline from Monday's U.K. Independent. 'Iraq as a political project is finished,' a senior government official was quoted as saying, continued the report, adding: 'The parties have moved to plan B.' He said that the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties were now looking at ways to divide Iraq between them and to decide the future of Baghdad, where there is a mixed population. 'There is serious talk of Baghdad being divided into (Shia) east and (Sunni) west,' he said."

Warning of the serious consequences for failing to provide a solution to the current conundrum, the U.K.'s KurdishMedia.com (July 16) stated: "The country is geographically and ethno-religiously divided into three: Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi'i Arabs, with Turkoman and Christian minorities. The present endemic violence has a strong chance of boiling over into civil warfare if a federation or confederation is imposed on terms not acceptable to all three major groups."

Discussions of the three-state solution have sparked feelings of unease in a neighboring country. According to Lebanon's Daily Star (July 3): "Syria fears any partition of Iraq, whether along sectarian or ethnic lines, because of the threat this might pose to its own sectarian and ethnically diverse population."

Venezuela's Petroleumworld.com (Jan. 23) posited: "The U.S. has long supported the concept of breakaway states — Kurdish and Shia — in Iraq. Iraq's new constitution, sponsored by the U.S., was drafted with this in mind. Unfortunately, a two or three state solution in Iraq would destabilize Iraq and the region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would almost surely intervene in Iraq to deter the Kurds and the Shia."

However, not all in Iraq are convinced that a descent into civil war leading to partition is inevitable. KurdishMedia.com (July 27) carried an interview with a leading Kurdish politician: "As violence continues to ravage Baghdad and other parts of the country, [Kurdistan Regional Government] Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said he does not believe Iraq has descended into a civil war. 'The fight is over Baghdad,' he said, 'This is the problem that is happening. Yes, we are facing serious problems in Baghdad, especially between the Shiites and the Sunnis, but I cannot call it a civil war.' Barzani said he does not believe the violence will spill over into the Kurdistan Region because there are no sectarian problems here.

"At a time when Iraq looks ready to split apart, Mr. Barzani said although the Kurdish people would like their own state, the Kurdistan Region is not seeking statehood. 'Sometimes it is important for people to differentiate between dreams and what is the reality on the ground,' he said. But he would not rule out seeking an independent state in the future, saying only that at this stage, it was not in the interest of the Kurdish people."

When it was first proposed back in late 2003, Gelb's three-state solution was not favorably received in the region.

Writing in Qatar's Al-Jazeerah (Jan. 3, 2004), veteran journalist Robert Fisk excoriated the plan: "In no less an organ than The New York Times — the same paper which carried a plea last year that Americans should accept that U.S. troops will commit 'atrocities' in Iraq — appeared Gelb's 'Three State Solution,' an astonishing combination of simplicity and ruthlessness. It goes like this: America should create three mini-states in Iraq — Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south — the frontiers of these three entities drawn along ethnic, sectarian lines. The 'general idea,' said Gelb, 'is to strengthen the Kurds and Shiites and weaken the Sunnis.' Thus U.S. forces can extricate themselves from the quagmire of the 'Sunni triangle' while the 'troublesome and domineering' Sunnis themselves — with no control over Iraq's northern or southern oil fields — will be in a more moderate frame of mind.

"True, the chopping up of Iraq might be 'a messy and dangerous enterprise' — tens of thousands of Iraqis, after all, would be thrown out of their homes and pushed across new frontiers — but Washington should, if necessary, impose partition by force. This is the essence of the Gelb plan."

The plan was 'damned with faint praise' by Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly Online (Dec. 4-10, 2003): "But it should not go unnoticed that in recent weeks some senior American analysts have been suggesting breaking up Iraq into three entities. In a recent article in The New York Times, top analyst Leslie Gelb suggested a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shi'ites in the south. The general idea, he wrote, is to strengthen the Kurds and Shi'ites and weaken the Sunnis, then wait and see whether to stop at autonomy or encourage statehood. This three-state solution is the only viable strategy and it is manageable, even necessary, because it would allow Washington to find Iraq's future in its natural but denied past, he wrote. It is not clear, however, if such scenarios are figments of a fertile imagination or yet another blueprint being drawn up by Washington's decision-making bodies."

In Hong Kong's Asia Times (May 12, 2004) an op-ed piece by Sadi Baig mocked the proposed solution: "Some conservative leaders are already talking about a three-state solution. The U.S. and subsequently the United Nations plan is designed to engineer a divide by having a president and two vice presidents, each representing the three divisions of Kurd, Shi'ite and Sunni. A U.S. equivalent of it will be to have a white president with two vice presidents, one African-American, and the other a Latino. The U.N.-sponsored solution will not be very different than the weakly federated states of the Balkans that are held together by U.N. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces."

Also in the Asia Times (Nov. 27, 2003) in an article titled 'Three from one doesn't add up,' Nir Rosen wrote: "An Iraqi population already skeptical of American motives would view any suggestion of further division as proof of a nefarious scheme to divide and plunder their country. Sunnis and Shi'ites would all take up arms and the resistance would be universal. There is no Sunni or Shi'ite Iraqi who wants to divide his country. The Kurds of Iraq are of course a separate ethnic group. However, they have participated in united opposition movements before the war, the reconstruction efforts after the war and are represented in the IGC by both major Kurdish parties. Even the Iraqi foreign minister is Kurdish. During Saddam's reign and before, many Kurds actually cooperated with the regime, serving as ministers and officers and even fighting the rebel brethren.

"Gelb, like all conscientious observers, is seeking a just solution for the debacle that poor planning (as well as poor justification) caused in Iraq. The solution is to build a strong united Iraq. This can be done by empowering the IGC, by establishing a constitution that protects against dictatorship and the domination of the country by one group, by returning sovereignty to Iraqis as soon as possible, and by avoiding the imposition of Washington based ideologies that are disconnected from the reality of Iraq."

A highly pessimistic view of the plan was expressed in Iraq's Al-Basrah.net (March 10, 2005): "One of the original aims of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was to weaken and divide a state that served as a focus of power in the Arab East. Outlined in articles such as 'The Three State Solution' by Leslie Gelb in The New York Times of Nov. 25, 2003, the partition of Iraq along sectarian lines has been a constant in U.S. occupation policy.

"When the U.S. installed a puppet regime, it assigned seats along religious lines. In the recent sham 'election' the U.S. facilitated Kurdish chauvinists in northern Iraq to flood the city of Kirkuk with outside voters, provoking ethnic discord between Kurds on the one side, and Arabs and Turkmen on the other. Meanwhile the U.S. occupation forces have incorporated large numbers of Shi'i chauvinist Badr Brigade gunmen in their puppet police and so-called 'national guard' and used sectarian preachers to incite such fighters against defiant Iraqi Resistance fighters in al-Fallujah."

Taking the opposite position, and positing that partition would actually be a positive development, security analyst Michael Clarke in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC.ca (Feb 1, 2004) said: "… and then we start to move towards a three state solution, because the Sunnis, in the Sunni Triangle, are desperately frightened of Shia domination. And the Sunnis want some autonomy and some guarantees of safety in the new Iraq. But they won't settle for anything less than the Kurds in the north have had for the last ten years. Under the protection of the no-fly zone, the Kurdish area has enjoyed a great deal of autonomy.

"So what you've got in Iraq is a majority Shia population who want to assert their natural democratic rights as the majority, a Sunni minority who want guarantees, no less sensitive and important than those guarantees which the Kurds have received. That means that you've got a natural three state solution starting to emerge."