News & Politics

The Senate's 'Rebuke' to Bush's Iraq Policy Is a Blueprint for Ethnic Cleansing

Let's call Joe Biden's Senate plan to split Iraq in three pieces for what it is: a blueprint for ethnic cleansing and possibly a full-blown civil war.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate passed a nonbinding resolution supporting "regional federalism" in Iraq. The measure is a disaster waiting to happen, and should be called what it is: a blueprint for ethnic cleansing and potentially a full-blown civil war.

The clunkily named Biden-Brownback Iraq Federalism Bipartisan Amendment is the latest in a series of calls for a "soft partition" of Iraq into three semiautonomous regions -- split up according to ethnicity and sect -- that appear to be gaining currency in Washington. The idea, championed for more than a year by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., would leave a weak federal government in place in Baghdad to divvy up the oil revenues and maintain the country's borders.

Proponents of the plan deserve credit for understanding that there's no military solution to be found in Iraq -- that a political conflict requires a political fix. This already puts them miles ahead of the administration and defenders of the status quo, and they should be commended for seeking a practical way out of the mess created by the U.S. invasion.

But Iraqis do not live in neat enclaves; 4 million have already been forced to flee their homes by sectarian and separatist militias, and thousands more have been killed in the process. Whatever the intentions of the proponents of the plan might be, calling for more of the same is profoundly immoral, and doing so from the remote confines of Washington conference rooms is reminiscent of earlier eras in which Western powers carved up distant lands by drawing new lines on the map.

The Senate resolution created a firestorm of outrage among Iraq's political class and across the Middle East, which was duly noted by the U.S. media and then relegated to trivia, as is the custom when it comes to the opinions of the Empire's subjects.

Biden and other supporters of the plan claim that critics at home and abroad have misunderstood the amendment; the senator penned a "setting the record straight" piece on the Huffington Post last week. In it, he wrote that "the amendment will not produce 'bloodshed and suffering' in Iraq" but didn't address the argument. Instead, he dismissed it with a throwaway line more appropriate for someone advocating immediate withdrawal: "It is hard to imagine," he wrote, "more bloodshed and suffering than we've already seen, which has been exacerbated by the failure of Iraq's leaders to stop sectarian violence and produce a durable, widely accepted political settlement." He added: "More than 4 million Iraqis have already fled their homes for fear of sectarian violence, at a rate now of 100,000 every month." It's hard to read that as other than: "Ethnic cleansing is rampant, and therefore we should encourage them to finish the job quickly."

As Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group wrote:
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.
The facts can't be ignored. According to a survey conducted last month for the BBC, half of all Iraqis surveyed said that they live in a mixed neighborhood, and about a third of those said that a "separating of people" according to sect had taken place in their communities. But the key finding, and one that speaks directly to the "soft" partition plan, is that 7 out of 10 people who said that "separation" had occurred in their area said that it had been "mainly forcible" in nature. That is, in ordinary discourse, known as ethnic cleansing.

There's no getting around that.

Supporters of the plan claim that Iraq is an "artificial state" cobbled together by colonial powers, and that Iraqis have little in the way of national identity. This is one of those narratives that's as wrong as it is popular; Iraq has long existed as a nation of people with a powerful shared identity and a collective history that goes back 7,000 years. Iraqis weren't a collection of foreigners shipped to Iraq by the British -- they were living there long before the "artificial line" was drawn around them, just as the Egyptians, and dozens of other peoples around the world, had existed for thousands of years before their current borders were drawn.

Biden also disputes the charge that the Senate's partition plan is an example of foreign meddling: "The amendment is not a foreign imposition," he writes. "Iraqis already have made the decision to decentralize in their Constitution and federalism law."
[The amendment] calls for helping Iraqis implement their own Constitution, which provides for any of Iraq's 18 provinces to form regions, and sets out the extensive powers of those regions and the limited powers of the central government.
That obscures the fact that Iraqis are still modifying and rewriting their Constitution, and that the conflict over which type of federalism will become the law of the land is still splitting the Iraqi political class. While the prime minister and his cabinet favor a model that would allow the creation of powerful regional governments, a majority in the Iraqi parliament are supporting a federal system based on Iraq's 18 existing governates -- a system based on geographic rather than sectarian lines that would keep the central government in charge of the country's economical and political decisions.

Biden says that "the amendment [does not] call for dividing Iraq along sectarian lines," but that's a sleight of hand: The amendment passed by the Senate doesn't say as much explicitly, but the plan that Biden developed, along with the Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb -- the plan that he has been pushing in Washington and Baghdad since last May -- is explicit in it's call for division along ethnosectarian lines, saying its central tenet is "giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis local control over their daily lives."

The reason the Iraqi Constitution was ambiguous on the point of federalism, saying that the provinces may seek more authority, was that the negotiators couldn't come to an agreement on the issue -- it created an irreconcilable point of friction between Iraqi separatists and nationalists (a conflict we've discussed in more detail elsewhere). The vaguely worded provision was agreeable because it was not actionable; the fledgling Iraqi government punted the issue down the field for later consideration. The constitution rewriting committee, still working to this day to rewrite the constitution as a major step toward reconciliation, has not reached a conclusion on this deeply divisive question.

Biden implies -- and this is parroted by most supporters of the plan -- that Iraqis themselves favor the idea. That couldn't be further from the truth; significant majorities of all of Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups favor a strong central government. When asked by the BBC: "Do you think the separation of people on sectarian lines is a good thing or a bad thing for Iraq?" a conclusive 98 percent said it was a "bad thing." When asked what kind of government they wanted, Iraqis favored "one unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad" over "a group of regional states with their own regional governments and a federal government in Baghdad" by more than 2 to 1.

Biden insists that Iraq's leaders are with him, despite condemnations from the heads of most of Iraq's political parties. When we reached Nadim al-Jaberi, head of the Shiite nationalist Al-Fadhila Party, he told us that most Iraqis oppose the plan because they understand that Iraq's conflict is primarily political rather than sectarian. "The majority of the Iraqi parliament and the majority of Iraqis are against splitting Iraq into three regions," he said.

The sentiment is likely to be codified soon: Saleh Al-Mutlaq, head of the National Dialogue Front -- a secular party -- told us by phone from Jordan that "Sunni, Shia, and secular groups who control the majority of the parliament are planning to pass a resolution after Eid Al-Fetr [the feast that marks the end of Ramadan] outlawing any attempts to split Iraq into sectarian- or ethnic-based regions."

While Biden insists that the United States is not in any way imposing its will on the Iraqi people, he also wrote that "the idea that the United States -- with 160,000 troops in Iraq, 3,804 dead and nearly 28,000 wounded -- does not have a right and responsibility to voice its views and to push for a political settlement is absurd." He's wrong on both counts.

First, it may be the case that the Senate's resolution was nonbinding, but to pretend that the U.S. government is a disinterested bystander simply offering friendly advice is to deny the fundamental reality of the situation on the ground: with 160,000 U.S. troops (and a similar number of trigger-happy security contractors) and a government elected anonymously that requires the protection of a foreign-controlled "Green Zone," the Senate's moves are not just a matter of academic interest. What's more, the context is important: the Coalition has repeatedly taken sides in a crucially important political fight over the future of Iraq. Its forces have attacked Iraqi nationalists violently, its officials have marginalized nationalist views, and the Bush administration has stood steadfast behind the regime of Nouri al-Maliki, dominated by Sunni, Shia and Kurdish separatists.

Second, the idea that the United States has a "right" to opine on questions that are fundamental to Iraq's future is morally outrageous: War of aggression remains the highest crime under international law, and the United States has no more "rights" to weigh in on the matter than Saddam Hussein had to dictate affairs in Kuwait in 1991. Like talking about a "clash of civilizations" or suggesting U.S. troops might be there for generations, simply talking about partitioning the country fans the flames of the Iraqi insurgency.

But despite its many flaws, the Biden plan will likely continue to gain currency in Washington, D.C., because it offers the promise -- a false promise, but a straw at which to grasp -- of a "bipartisan" fix to the Iraqi mess that would allow the United States to leave without either admitting defeat at the hands of the Iraqi resistance or taking responsibility for the disastrous consequences that resulted from the choice to attack the well-contained country in the first place. What's more, it allows U.S. lawmakers to say they voted for a change of course without substantially changing anything, and, perhaps most importantly, it allows the U.S. strategic class to keep its imperial ideology above scrutiny.
Raed Jarrar is Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. He blogs at Raed in the Middle. Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer and editor.
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