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Keep It Whole

Iraq: What Next?

It is a measure of just how unmanageable the war in Iraq has become that an increasing number of politicians and foreign policy analysts are subscribing to Senator Joe Biden's plan to partition Iraq into independent Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish "statelets." On the surface, partition seems like an attractive option. After all, the argument goes, Iraq is already bitterly divided along sectarian lines. Partitioning the country would only formalize what is taking place on the ground.

But, despite portrayals to the contrary, Iraq is not so cleanly divided along sectarian lines. The homogenization of Iraq's neighborhoods results more from a lack of security than from a hardening of ethnic or sectarian identities. In a country where the police and armed forces have failed to provide any semblance of protection, allying oneself with a sect, if not a sectarian militia, has become quite literally a matter of life and death. Nevertheless, most Iraqis continue to identify themselves first and foremost as members of individual clans, many of which cross ethnic and sectarian lines through intermarriage and ancient alliances.

In any case, partitioning Iraq would in no way solve the country's most intractable problem: how to divide oil revenue evenly. Considering that the vast majority of Iraq's oil fields reside almost exclusively in the Shia south and the Kurdish north, it is not difficult to imagine how partition could lead to the permanent exclusion of the Sunnis from what is practically Iraq's sole source of revenue. This would likely result in an even greater sense of alienation among the Sunnis and, consequently, increased sectarian violence. Partition could even lead to a regional war, as Iraq's neighbors, such as Turkey and Iran, are forced to deal with the chaotic aftermath of a fractured Iraq.

What the partition plan ignores is that, despite the country's rapid descent into chaos and the government's deadlock on fundamental issues like revenue-sharing, the Iraqis have done a masterful job of coming together to lay the groundwork for a unified, viable state. The Iraqi constitution provides a template for a united yet pluralistic nation. The Iraqi electorate has, on more than one occasion, proved that it is interested in having a stake in the future of the country. And the fractious government, in spite of its bumbling ineffectiveness, has nevertheless managed to come to terms on issues of mutual concern that would have been inconceivable a mere year ago. Indeed, the fact that the Iraqi government remains standing despite a devastating civil war is in itself a miracle.

It is absurd to argue, as President Bush repeatedly has, that "success" in Iraq is impossible to achieve until Iraqis themselves decide whether they want to live in a free society or not. Of course Iraqis want freedom. But they want security even more. Providing this security must become America's primary, if not sole, responsibility in Iraq. Rather than altering Iraq's geographic demography, perhaps it is time to alter U.S. policy, specifically by transitioning from an offensive strategy--intended to root out insurgents and what the president calls "Al Qaeda types"--to a defensive strategy, whose purpose is to keep Iraqis alive long enough for them to rebuild their civilian and political infrastructure.

In practical terms, this would involve redeploying U.S. troops from the relatively stable Kurdish north and Shia south so as to create a ring of security around the perimeter of Baghdad, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Najaf. Such a plan would require the participation of the majority of America's 150,000 troops. It also would require the assistance of Syria and Iran, if for no other reason than to help shore up the country's porous borders. Finally, it would necessitate a political settlement with the Iraqi nationalists and former Baathists who make up some 90 percent of the insurgency and who have demonstrated that they are willing to negotiate through their proxies in the parliament. All three of these nemeses--the nationalist insurgents, the Syrians, and the Iranians--share a visceral hatred for the United States and would like nothing more than to see the failure of America's plans for the Middle East. But, on two fundamental issues, they and the United States are in full agreement: We all, especially the nationalist insurgents, want Iraq to be free of foreign jihadists, and we all want U.S. troops out of the country as soon as possible.

Most importantly, however, this so-called "stability first" plan will require an ideological shift in the way the Bush administration conceives of the war. In short, it means abandoning once and for all the fiction that the war in Iraq is the principal front in the war on terrorism. As all but the most ideologically obstinate (read: Dick Cheney) now concede, Iraq is nothing of the sort. And the sooner the United States divorces the two, the sooner it can get its troops out of Iraq and refocus its energies on actually fighting the rapid surge of jihadism throughout the Muslim world--the most devastating legacy of the war in Iraq. With the search for weapons of mass destruction called off, the pursuit of a U.S.-inspired democracy abandoned, and the master plan to rebuild the Middle East permanently shelved, there is but one measure of victory left in Iraq: a safe and speedy withdrawal of U.S. forces, but one that would leave behind a strong and stable federal government. It's time to focus on fixing the Iraq we have, rather than imagining the Iraq we want.

Reza Aslan is Middle East analyst for CBS News and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.