Cause of Iraq's chaos: bad borders

People, including Iraqis, like to live among their own. So let them.

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Virtually all of Iraq's present troubles stem from one thing: rulers. Not the human rulers who wield political, economic, or military power – although they cause mischief enough – but the humble ruler itself, commonly used by schoolchildren and draftsmen.

As surprising as it may be, the continual fighting in Iraq has little to do with East vs. West, Islam vs. Christianity, or even Shiite vs. Sunni. But it has everything to do with rulers.

Which is exactly why Iraq should be allowed to separate into three distinct nations – one Sunni, one Kurd, and one Shiite. Moreover, none of these entities should even go by the name of "Iraq," which is little more than a colonial sobriquet.

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Almost a century ago, rulers – those seemingly harmless instruments of precision – were brandished like swords by European colonial map-drawers, slashing, hacking, and defining the present-day frontiers of not only Iraq but almost the entire Middle East. With a few strokes, this modest yet mighty weapon created not only countries but a host of vexing problems as well.

If you want to discover hot spots on this globe, look for long straight border lines. You'll find them across the Middle East and Africa. Iraq's straight-edge boundaries – slicing through ethnic, linguistic, and religious areas – are particularly egregious. No naturally developed nation-state has such clean-cut frontiers, with the exception of the United States and Canada, but that was another historical process altogether, involving like-minded European settlers rationally dividing a stretch of land, in which the original inhabitants had been destroyed.

Organically developed nations are commonly delineated by deserts, rivers, lakes, seas, mountain ranges, or forests. They tend to be marked by wiggly, curvaceous lines and oddly shaped – Vietnam or Austria, for instance. Such boundaries became established after hundreds of years of settlement and fighting, resulting in similar ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious groups binding together because of one basic fact: People want to live among their own. Once they have sorted out their internal and external affairs, they can live in harmony among other nations or chose to make war for their own national reasons and purposes.

Mesopotamia, as the region that includes Iraq was called until recently, had never been a "country" or "nation" in the modern senses of these words. The wise and largely benign rulers of the Ottoman Empire, who reigned over this land for centuries, realized that no outside force could ever rule this area by foisting preconceived notions of nationhood upon the population, whose loyalties lay with family, tribe, linguistic grouping, and religious orientation. More important, the Ottomans understood that these diverse groups simply didn't want to live together.

After World War I, however, Mesopotamia got a new master. The British whipped out their rulers to draw a new nation, labeling it "Iraq." The result has been intransigent tribal, ethnic, and religious tensions and violence.

Historically, diverse ethnoreligious groups have lived side by side peacefully when they were crushed together by the steel fist of an authoritarian ruler. Former Yugoslavia serves as a prime example. Bound together by Tito, a heavy-handed leader, this artificial creation incorporated such different peoples as Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and Albanians. This incendiary mixture imploded upon Tito's death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Immediately, groups began fighting it out to redraw boundaries.

Unfortunately, this meant that wars had to be fought. Though vicious, cruel, and bloody, this process was vital. Its beneficial results can be seen on a modern map of the region: New countries such as Croatia have the telltale odd shape and wiggly lines of older, established, stable countries. Gone are those artificial border lines, the unreal trappings of a federation that should never have existed. Gone, for the most part, too, is the explosive anger that exists when ethnic groups are unwillingly thrown together. Instead, although Serbs, Croats, and the other groups do not love one another, they can now live alongside one another in relative harmony. Where this is not the case, as in Kosovo, ethnic tensions continue to bubble.

Regardless of the US and coalition presence in Iraq, there will be peace in the region only when historical forces are allowed to play out. Indeed, this process has already begun in the northern Kurdish areas, largely spared of suicide bombings and sectarian beheadings because the Kurds there have already begun the process of righting colonial wrongs. The borders of the still unborn state of Kurdistan are appropriately not ruler-straight. Of equal import, its people are bound by linguistic, cultural, religious, and ethnic ties. They should have little to fight about, except securing their own independence.

The long-term solution to ending the warfare in Iraq lies in letting the fighting develop into a three-way war of national identity and national independence. Outsiders should not interfere, although in reality this is virtually impossible to prevent. Only then can concepts such as democracy be considered.

Peace will only come to this ancient land once the artificial grouping delineated by those absurdly straight borders has been sorted out. Present-day Iraqis should be allowed to right the wrong done by foreign rulers wielding rulers and form nation-states of their own design. Only then will they and, hopefully, the world community be able to live in a more stable and peaceful world.

O'Brien Browne teaches Middle Eastern history and politics at Schiller International University and intercultural communication at Heidelberg University. He writes extensively on Middle Eastern history and culture.

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