Partition

PARTITION….A number of people, perhaps most prominently Les Gelb, have been suggesting for years that the best way to stop the violence in Iraq is via partition. Various people have put forth various plans along these lines, but most of them boil down to a Kurdish north, a Shiite south, and a Sunni center.

I’ve been skeptical of this ever since I first heard about it, and yesterday Iraq’s leadership decided it was pretty skeptical too:

Iraq’s leaders stepped back from a simmering constitutional crisis Sunday, agreeing to wait at least 18 months before setting up autonomous regions that would shift power away from the central government.

….The compromise leaves intact southern Shiite Muslims’ and northern Kurds’ goal of creating a federal system that would strengthen their hold on the vast oil resources of their two regions. At the same time, Sunni Arabs, who dominate in the resource-poor central and western provinces, would have time to seek constitutional changes to limit the effects of autonomy.

The problem is that, far from bringing peace, discussion of partition does nothing but fan the flames of sectarianism. By forcing a serious discussion of tradeoffs between Sunni and Shia, it makes their differences concrete and immediate, which is why negotiations have been “put off” yet again. Unfortunately, there’s no special reason to think these differences will become any less concrete and immediate 18 months from now.

I suppose it’s possible that eventually something along the lines of partition might work out. But my guess is that in the end the only partition we’ll get will be in the Kurdish north, which will almost certainly retain its current level of independence and might even formally secede at some point. The rest of the country, though, seems destined to become a Shiite theocracy one way or another. It will probably take an all-out civil war for it to happen, but given that Shia make up about three-quarters of the population of the non-Kurdish south, it’s hard to see it turning out any other way.