In the escalating debate over the US role in Iraq, the latest panacea on offer is an option called "soft partition." However, like "hard" partition (Iraq's breakup) and a military surge, this proposal will fail in its goal to create a new and stable modus vivendi in Iraq.
Soft partition prescribes a weak Iraqi central government; three or four strong regional governments; and the physical separation, with US help, of Iraq's three major ethnic and religious groups: Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni Arabs. They each would receive a proportionate share of royalties from oil sales. Thus Sunni Arabs, most of whom are residents of oil-poor regions, would still be guaranteed 20 percent of oil income, since they make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population.
Soft-partition proponents argue that a loose federation along these lines reflects reality – that Iraq cannot be kept together as a central state, given the hostility among groups and their attempts at sectarian cleansing. And, say advocates, the proposal is not an American imposition but an Iraqi idea enshrined in the new Constitution.
But the concept of soft partition misreads Iraqi realities. Despite sectarian cleansing attempts, Iraqis remain deeply intermingled and intermarried in a mosaic that could be changed only through campaigns of intimidation and mass murder.
Moreover, in poll after poll, a majority of Iraqis has indicated that they wish the country to remain unified. For example, the International Republican Institute reported in July 2006 that 66 percent of Iraqis opposed segregation by ethnicity or sect.
Soft partition advocates counter that the country's new Constitution, which allows for the type of loose federalism that they support, was adopted by a convincing majority in a 2005 referendum. While true, this claim is undermined by the fact that Iraqis voted for the Constitution as a whole, not its individual provisions. And Iraqis were encouraged to endorse it not only by political parties but, in the case of the Shiites, their most senior religious leaders.
The constitutional language on federalism and revenue sharing, in particular, reflected a backroom deal between the Kurdish alliance and only one of the Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq (SCIRI), which reached the final compromise at the exclusion of all other parties and Iraqi society.
There is no question that the Kurds desire independence, and they can make a strong case that they are entitled to it. As realists, however, their leaders have agreed to remain a part of Iraq for now.
The Kurdish parties are using their relative political strength to maximize their future opportunities for secession. The Kurds' separation into an autonomous region with extensive powers should not be problematic, unless they fail to compromise on control over the historically mixed region of Kirkuk, which holds 12 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves.
SCIRI's case is different. Despite the political power it enjoys because of its Iran-supported militia, the party lacks support among Shiites. To compensate, SCIRI began peddling a novel idea as the Constitution was being drafted: creation of a Shiite "superregion" covering Iraq's nine southern governorates, which together account for 70 to 80 percent of proven oil reserves. It is this notion, inserted into the Constitution, that helped inflame sectarian debate. It also proved divisive among Shiites. Most members of the Shiite alliance have rejected the idea, even as they support some degree of power decentralization.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs are just as divided, but they agree on one thing: They reject a federal scheme that would give them an unenforceable guarantee of oil revenues while cutting them from power. While they have no interest in a return to a strong central state (this time controlled by Shiites), they abhor SCIRI's brand of federalism.
A workable compromise might be an asymmetric federalism that accepts a Kurdish region with significant autonomous powers and that devolves a lesser degree of power from the central state to the remaining 15 governorates of "Arab" Iraq. That way, no powerful regional government would monopolize oil revenues or be able to ignore a Constitutional guarantee on oil-revenue sharing. Nor would a central state be so strong that an authoritarian leader could turn it into another tyranny.
To reach such a compromise, the Bush administration would have to do something it has long resisted: It should pursue a forceful multilateral approach to press Iraqis across the political spectrum to forge a true national compact – the kind of overall compromise that the Constitution, in its sectarianism, failed to deliver. The alternative to compromise will not be a loose federation of Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite entities, as advocates of soft partition claim; rather, it will be the chaos of a failed state that could fall prey to its more powerful neighbors.
• Joost Hiltermann is deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa program of the International Crisis Group. He is based in Amman, Jordan.