The Three-State Solution

by Leslie H. Gelb, The New York Times, November 25, 2003

President Bush’s new strategy of transferring power quickly to Iraqis, and his critics’ alternatives, share a fundamental flaw: all commit the United States to a unified Iraq, artificially and fatefully made whole from three distinct ethnic and sectarian communities. That has been possible in the past only by the application of overwhelming and brutal force.

President Bush wants to hold Iraq together by conducting democratic elections countrywide. But by his daily reassurances to the contrary, he only fans devastating rumors of an American pullout. Meanwhile, influential senators have called for more and better American troops to defeat the insurgency. Yet neither the White House nor Congress is likely to approve sending more troops.

And then there is the plea, mostly from outside the United States government, to internationalize the occupation of Iraq. The moment for multilateralism, however,


may already have passed. Even the United Nations shudders at such a nightmarish responsibility.

The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.

Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most of its money and troops where they would do the most good quickly — with the Kurds and Shiites. The United States could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.

This three-state solution has been unthinkable in Washington for decades. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, a united Iraq was thought necessary to counter an anti-American Iran. Since the gulf war in 1991, a whole Iraq was deemed essential to preventing neighbors like Turkey, Syria and Iran from picking at the pieces and igniting wider wars.

But times have changed. The Kurds have largely been autonomous for years, and Ankara has lived with that. So long as the Kurds don’t move precipitously toward statehood or incite insurgencies in Turkey or Iran, these neighbors will accept their autonomy. It is true that a Shiite self-governing region could become a theocratic state or fall into an Iranian embrace. But for now, neither possibility seems likely.

There is a hopeful precedent for a three-state strategy: Yugoslavia after World War II. In 1946, Marshal Tito pulled together highly disparate ethnic groups into a united Yugoslavia. A Croat himself, he ruled the country from Belgrade among the majority and historically dominant Serbs. Through clever politics and personality, Tito kept the peace peacefully.

When Tito died in 1980, several parts of Yugoslavia quickly declared their independence. The Serbs, with superior armed forces and the arrogance of traditional rulers, struck brutally against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

Europeans and Americans protested but — stunningly and unforgivably — did little at first to prevent the violence. Eventually they gave the Bosnian Muslims and Croats the means to fight back, and the Serbs accepted separation. Later, when Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo rebelled against their cruel masters, the United States and Europe had to intervene again. The result there will be either autonomy or statehood for Kosovo.

The lesson is obvious: overwhelming force was the best chance for keeping Yugoslavia whole, and even that failed in the end. Meantime, the costs of preventing the natural states from emerging had been terrible.

The ancestors of today’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have been in Mesopotamia since before modern history. The Shiites there, unlike Shiites elsewhere in the Arab world, are a majority. The Sunnis of the region gravitate toward pan-Arabism. The non-Arab Kurds speak their own language and have always fed their own nationalism.

The Ottomans ruled all the peoples of this land as they were: separately. In 1921, Winston Churchill cobbled the three parts together for oil’s sake under a monarch backed by British armed forces. The Baathist Party took over in the 1960’s, with Saddam Hussein consolidating its control in 1979, maintaining unity through terror and with occasional American help.

Today, the Sunnis have a far greater stake in a united Iraq than either the Kurds or the Shiites. Central Iraq is largely without oil, and without oil revenues, the Sunnis would soon become poor cousins.

The Shiites might like a united Iraq if they controlled it — which they could if those elections Mr. Bush keeps promising ever occur. But the Kurds and Sunnis are unlikely to accept Shiite control, no matter how democratically achieved. The Kurds have the least interest in any strong central authority, which has never been good for them.

A strategy of breaking up Iraq and moving toward a three-state solution would build on these realities. The general idea is to strengthen the Kurds and Shiites and weaken the Sunnis, then wait and see whether to stop at autonomy or encourage statehood.

The first step would be to make the north and south into self-governing regions, with boundaries drawn as closely as possible along ethnic lines. Give the Kurds and Shiites the bulk of the billions of dollars voted by Congress for reconstruction. In return, require democratic elections within each region, and protections for women, minorities and the news media.

Second and at the same time, draw down American troops in the Sunni Triangle and ask the United Nations to oversee the transition to self-government there. This might take six to nine months; without power and money, the Sunnis may cause trouble.

For example, they might punish the substantial minorities left in the center, particularly the large Kurdish and Shiite populations in Baghdad. These minorities must have the time and the wherewithal to organize and make their deals, or go either north or south. This would be a messy and dangerous enterprise, but the United States would and should pay for the population movements and protect the process with force.

The Sunnis could also ignite insurgencies in the Kurdish and Shiite regions. To counter this, the United States would already have redeployed most of its troops north and south of the Sunni Triangle, where they could help arm and train the Kurds and Shiites, if asked.

The third part of the strategy would revolve around regional diplomacy. All the parties will suspect the worst of one another — not without reason. They will all need assurances about security. And if the three self-governing regions were to be given statehood, it should be done only with the consent of their neighbors. The Sunnis might surprise and behave well, thus making possible a single and loose confederation. Or maybe they would all have to live with simple autonomy, much as Taiwan does with respect to China.

For decades, the United States has worshiped at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state. Allowing all three communities within that false state to emerge at least as self-governing regions would be both difficult and dangerous. Washington would have to be very hard-headed, and hard-hearted, to engineer this breakup. But such a course is manageable, even necessary, because it would allow us to find Iraq’s future in its denied but natural past.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former editor and columnist for The Times, is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, NY.



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