Sunday Forum: Split up Iraq three ways

Letting the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis rule their own territories is the last, best hope for bringing peace to Iraq, argues international relations professor MICHAEL T. RIZZI

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An American-led coalition occupies Islamic territory over the objections of Russia and a number of other U.S. allies. Thousands of cheering Muslims flock to the streets, hoping the invasion marks the end of a regime led by a brutal, genocidal dictator. The mood begins to sour when U.S. peacekeepers stay beyond their welcome and a provisional government fails to unify the country's many ethnic groups, who seem more interested in jockeying for power than in crafting a constitution.


Michael T. Rizzi is a counselor for the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and has taught international relations (


Iraq in 2007? No. Bosnia in 1995.

As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates, it can be easy to forget the ongoing conflict in the Balkans -- which began less than a decade earlier. The future of Bosnia, like that of Iraq, still hangs in the balance. Yet while Iraqis live under the daily threat of violence with little end in sight, hardly a shot has been fired in Bosnia for more than 10 years.

The Bosnians' problems are still enormous, but their fighting has been confined to the halls of the United Nations and the local legislatures, where it belongs. How did the United States intervene in two divided, Islamic countries with such different outcomes? How did one conflict evolve into a diplomatic tug-of-war, while the other is being fought with suicide bombers? Most importantly, what can the glimmer of hope that we see in Bosnia teach us about the ever-darkening prospects for peace in Baghdad?

Of course, there are major differences between the two situations. Bosnia is located in a democratic neighborhood -- Europe -- where a stable, freely elected government would stand a decent chance to join the European Union. Iraq has much less peer pressure to stabilize, since its Arab neighbors offer few role models or incentives to create a successful democracy.

But like Iraq, Bosnia is struggling to grapple with intense ethnic and religious politics. Both places find themselves pulled in many different directions by bigger powers with different visions for the future. Iran, Syria, Turkey and al-Qaida are vying in Iraq, just as Russia, NATO and the European Union took (and still take) an interest in shaping Bosnia's young government.

Admittedly, the foreign powers in Bosnia have often limited their meddling to the diplomatic sphere, while those in Iraq have actively provoked violence. But this belies the fact that, at the height of the Balkan wars, the ethnic and religious rhetoric behind the bloodshed was at least as intense as that of modern Iraq. Influential Muslim clerics in the 1990s repeatedly referred to the Bosnian conflict as a jihad, prompting an influx of arms and volunteer soldiers into the country.

Despite these similarities, Bosnia's splintered society has something that Iraq's polarized groups have always lacked under Uncle Sam's watch: real autonomy within their country's borders. In the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke divided Bosnia into two "entities" -- the northern Republika Srpska, home to Orthodox Christian Serbs, and the southern Bosniak-Croat Federation, shared by Muslims and Croats. The two sides have almost complete self-government and meet in the national capital, Sarajevo, only to discuss foreign policy and a few other issues of national importance.

This unusual arrangement was greeted with skepticism in the mid-'90s (mostly because nobody understood exactly what an "entity" was, or how it differed from a "state" or a "province") but it has worked surprisingly well. Even though the country as a whole is still led by an international governor (its sixth since the end of the war), the violence has stopped -- maybe permanently.

Real autonomy has never been an option, however, for Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. From the beginning, American officials have dismissed the idea that Iraq could become a truly federal state, divided internally among its constituent groups. The logic behind this policy is clear: Any hint of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq would upset Turkey (which has a large Kurdish population and an active separatist movement), while Sunni or Shiite provinces drawn upon religious lines could fall under the influence of Iran or al-Qaida.

Still, it is hard to imagine how such a scenario would be radically different from the present situation, except that it would improve the chances of peaceful coexistence. The Kurds are autonomous in all but name, while Iranian and al-Qaida meddling is rampant under America's nose in Baghdad. Giving each of Iraq's three main groups control over a specific territory, with limited local power and access to natural resources, might be just the carrot that would coax Iraqis to stabilize their country at the local level.

Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the most senior and outspoken American official to argue in favor of a federalized Iraq, and he, too, has cited Bosnia as a successful prototype. So far, however, his proposals have been largely ignored -- both by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group and by the Bush administration, where Vice President Dick Cheney has been a particularly vocal opponent.

It is time for the administration and Congress to take this proposal seriously. By refusing even to lay this option on the table, the United States is missing a genuine opportunity to appeal to Iraqis' self-interest in rebuilding their country. People are less likely to destroy a road, oil field or neighborhood that might eventually be their own.

The process would not have to be a speedy one. In Bosnia, international administrators still hold sway. Still, it would require shifting U.S. strategy from warring to peacekeeping, and its first stages would have to bring relative peace fairly quickly given the waning patience of the American people for military involvement in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the United States remains focused on increasingly futile attempts to forge a government for all Iraqis, forgetting the lessons of its more successful efforts 12 years ago, when the Dayton Accords recognized ethnic divisions and built a community from the ground up, not the top down.


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