How to Save Iraq

By Gelb, Leslie H. | Newsweek, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

How to Save Iraq


Gelb, Leslie H., Newsweek


Byline: Leslie H. Gelb

The country is teetering on the brink of civil war. The deal that could be its salvation--and protect Baghdad from Iran.

In early 2006, then-senator Joe Biden and I discussed Iraq for three unbothered hours while our shuttle to Washington idled on the LaGuardia tarmac. We agreed that without an internal political solution, Iraq would sooner or later tumble into bloody civil war. Too many Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds just simply hated each other. And we agreed that only one political plan stood a chance of working--federalism. Federalism is not partition. It is the tried and true means of allowing peoples who don't trust each other to live together in one country by decentralizing power. Today federalism remains Iraq's only hope for peace.

Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have been at each other's throats for centuries. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis brutally ran the show in Iraq, though they were a minority and Shiites the majority. After the U.S. invasion, Shiites won nationwide elections and have since attempted to impose their rule nationwide. What's absolutely clear is that Kurds, in their largely autonomous northern region, and Sunni Arabs, in Iraq's center, flat out won't accept Shiite domination. As Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began to tighten his control over the country some months ago, the killings mounted--and would have regardless of whether American troops remained in country.

The idea behind federalism is to keep Iraq united by decentralizing power on a regional basis. This would provide each ethno-religious group the authority to run its own regional affairs, while the central government tends to national interests. The first step would be to establish semiautonomous regions or states with power to make and administer their own laws and provide for internal security. Thereby, Kurds and Sunnis would be protected from Shiite-imposed rule. Cities with mixed religious populations could be governed as federal cities under international protection. The central government would conduct foreign affairs, create a national army to guard borders, and manage oil production and revenues. …

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