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Should Iraq be split up in order to save it?

Violence between Sunnis and Shiites could destroy Iraq. One idea is dividing the country along sectarian lines.

To succeed in Iraq, the U.S. must get beyond the false choice between "staying the course" and "bringing the troops home now." We must choose a third way.

The idea is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group—Kurd, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab—room to run its own affairs, while the central government handles common interests.

Sectarian violence (Sunnis and Shiites killing each other) has surpassed the insurgency (militants attacking foreign and Iraqi troops) as the main security threat. Death squads kill dozens daily. Iraq's new government cannot stop the deterioration by itself.

The solution is to establish three largely autonomous regions, as Iraq's Constitution already allows. The Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions would handle their own domestic laws and security. The central government in Baghdad would control borders, foreign affairs, and oil revenues.

This may be the only way to prevent a violent partition and create enough stability so that the U.S. could withdraw nearly all its troops by 2008.

This would be a good deal for all. The Sunnis, who have no oil, would be guaranteed 20 percent of oil revenues. As a minority, Sunnis are realizing they don't want to live in a Shiite-controlled, highly centralized state with laws enforced by sectarian militias. The Shiites know they can dominate the government, but they can't defeat a Sunni insurgency. The Kurds will not give up their 15-year-old autonomy.

Ultimately, the best way to keep Iraq together is to give each community a cooling-off period in its own region.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democrat of Delaware

Partitioning Iraq would not serve either Iraqi or American interests, and would make life for average Iraqis even worse.

Iraq does not have a neat set of ethnic dividing lines. Thus any effort to divide the country would require widespread "relocations." This would probably be violent and impoverish those forced to move, leave a legacy of fear and hatred, and further delay Iraq's political and economic recovery.

In addition, the nation could not be partitioned without dividing the army, the security forces, and the police. This would strengthen sectarian militias, and that would lead to more violence.

And of course, there is no way to divide Iraq that will not set off fights over control of oil. More than 90 percent of the government's revenues come from oil exports. But the Sunni Arab west has no developed oil fields and thus would have no oil income.

Dividing Iraq would also harm regional stability and the war on terrorists. Islamist extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda already dominate the Sunni insurgents, and division would only increase their hold over average Iraqis. Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran, and Syria would seek to destabilize the Kurdish north. These divisions could spill over into the rest of the Middle East, creating conflicts and the kind of religious tension that feeds Islamist extremism.

Washington has made serious mistakes in Iraq, and they may lead to civil war. Dividing Iraq, however, is virtually certain to make things worse. It would convey the message that America has been defeated and has abandoned a nation and a people.

Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic & Int'l. Studies