US seeks options for Iraq, finds few answers

Senator Biden's 'third way' - divide Iraq in order to save it - gets little support from experts.

With mounting sectarian violence in Iraq yet waning American influence there, a prominent Democratic policymaker is touting a plan to divide Iraq into sectarian-based autonomous regions - as a way to head off even deeper conflict.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is calling for the division of Iraq into Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni regions. Those regions would share oil wealth and provide for their own internal security, while leaving foreign policy, border security, and oil policy to a central government in Baghdad.

The Biden proposal is the most recent evidence that US leaders are looking for new ideas for addressing Iraq and the US commitment there. In March Congress named an independent panel, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and longtime Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, charged with providing the White House and Congress with a fresh assessment of options for Iraq.

Biden's wading into the Iraq conundrum is commended by some observers for at least attempting to answer the big problems they say others - particularly the Bush administration - have left unaddressed. Those include the thorny issue of Iraq's militias, which some US military officials now call a bigger problem than the insurgency.

Most Iraq experts, however, are categoric in their rejection of the proposal, saying it would only worsen an already bad situation - and that it is not likely to garner broad support among Iraqis.

"This is such a terrible idea in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst now at the National Defense University. "If we push Iraq in this direction it will be civil war for sure, and what we have now will look like child's play."

Others say the plan would simply be another outside imposition that would not work because it would not have the support of Iraqis and would be seen by the neighbors as a sign of weakness.

"There is nothing like that in the Arab world, and I'd say there's a reason for that: It's not something that appeals to the Arab political mind," says Patrick Lang, an Iraq specialist and former Defense Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst. "If you go down this road, I'd say it's just a way station to dissolution."

But Biden, who drew up his proposal with Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, says his plan works with the facts on the ground - that Iraqis are already in sectarian strife, and are already uprooting families to move to more ethnically pure areas. Moreover, he notes that the seeds of a division into autonomous regions are already planted in the Iraqi constitution approved last year.

"The only way to have a united Iraq five years from now (is) to give each of the major constituencies some breathing room at the front end," says Biden. Noting that the constitution recognizes an already autonomous Kurdish north and provides for other autonomous regions to be formed, the Delaware senator adds, "This [plan] is completely consistent with the elements of the existing constitution."

Biden says his plan is based on the lessons of history - and specifically the 1995 accord that divided Bosnia into autonomous regions. Noting that Bosnia's regions were allowed to maintain separate security forces, Biden says that alternative could reduce the daily toll of what he says have become official "death squads," especially within Iraq's police.

In the meantime, he adds, recruits for a national force to guard the borders could be more properly vetted - with the idea of forming a truly national army over time.

One problem critics of the plan see is that the Sunnis, who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, have no militias. Would that leave the US to defend the Sunni region, some wonder?

Biden says his plan also calls for an international conference - like those that ended Bosnia's sectarian strife and helped stabilize Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban - which he assumes could result in stepped-up international support for Iraq. That could include a larger international security presence in Iraq as the US draw down to a force of about 30,000 soldiers, he says.

Still, experts in the Balkans conflicts say international discussion of proposals to divide countries along ethnic lines only fed the flames of ethnic cleansing, and some worry that Biden's proposal - coming from a US senator who has been to Iraq a half-dozen times since the war - could do the same in Iraq.

Iraqi officials estimate that about 100,000 Iraqis have been displaced or have chosen to move as a result of the rise of sectarian violence. But experts like the Defense University's Ms. Yaphe say that number is nothing compared to the displacement and upheaval that would result from a division plan. "Iraq is actually quite mixed in many parts and especially in cities," she says. "Baghdad alone is a city of 5 million. This idea doesn't seem to take into account the impact of the dislocation it would cause there."

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