Although public relations offensives are the way wars are fought
inside the capital Beltway, the sectarian groups in Iraq aren’t playing
by the rules of Washington movers and shakers. The worsening civil
war—in Bush administration euphemism, “sectarian violence”—is now more
worrisome to the President’s battlefield commanders than the Sunni
While liberals insist that Iraq has plunged into civil war and
conservatives continue to believe that the violence can only be quelled
by a stronger Iraqi government, no one is looking at the important
question of what direction future U.S. policy should take.
A quick look at Iraq’s history reveals that government intervention,
beginning with the British government’s meddling after World War I, is
primarily responsible for the country’s current problems. The British
created the artificial state of Iraq from the rubble of the Ottoman
Throughout its history, Iraq has been held together only by brute
force of authoritarian power. Although the various ethnic and religious
groups in Iraq traditionally have lived in peace, during Saddam’s rule,
he deliberately stoked ethnic and religious cleavages in a “divide and
After the naïve U.S. invasion removed the only brake on Iraqi
centrifugal forces, Saddam’s earlier fueling of sectarian animosities
has come home to roost in the current civil war between the Sunni and
Even though the interventions of governments have caused most of
Iraq’s current difficulties, the Bush administration and other
conservatives, such as George Will, apparently believe that somehow
stronger government is also the answer. Quite the contrary.
Will argues that in the absence of a strong central government
“sectarian clustering” will occur. Sectarian clustering is not
necessarily a bad thing unless compelled by force of arms. People should
be allowed to live freely where they want. The problem in Iraq was that
the Sunni insurgents deliberately struck Shi’ite targets to provoke
Shi’ite militias into the civil war that has already begun.
And the Sunnis began their insurgency for three reasons. The first
was to oust the U.S. government’s occupation of their homeland and later
the Shi’ite/Kurdish interim government that it was propping up. The
second was to avoid paybacks for the excesses of the Saddam era by that
and future Iraqi Shi’ite/Kurdish central governments.
The third was to prevent the Shi’ite/Kurdish government from
controlling all of Iraq’s oil wealth—which lies mainly in the northern
Kurdish and southern Shi’ite regions of the country—and perhaps leaving
the Sunnis without any if those regions decided to become autonomous or
secede from Iraq, as seems increasingly likely.
In fact, perhaps the solution to Iraq lies in such sectarian
clustering. Instead of fighting the powerful centrifugal forces in Iraq,
perhaps the United States and the Iraqis should embrace them.
A grand conclave of all Iraqi groups should be held to negotiate the
decentralization of Iraq. Such an arrangement would probably entail a
very loose confederation with a weak central government or an outright
partition (with each group not necessarily inhabiting contiguous areas)
with no Iraqi central government.
Minimizing or eliminating the central government would eliminate the
fear by Iraqi groups that the central government would be taken over by
one group and used to oppress all others. To get the Sunnis to agree to
such decentralization and to quell their fears that they would be left
with only a rump state devoid of oil revenues, the Shi’a and Kurds would
need to reach an oil revenue sharing agreement with them or actually
give them territory containing oil wells.
To encourage the Shi’a and the Kurds to make such concessions, the
United States should announce a rapid withdrawal of the U.S. forces that
are now artificially propping up the Iraqi central government.
The reality is that Iraq is already effectively decentralized.
Numerous militias control large areas and cannot be disarmed.
Also, the Bush administration makes the questionable assumption that
the Iraqi security forces will remain national and not break up to match
the sectarian divides in Iraqi society. Yet the administration and many
other conservatives, who would never embrace big government solutions at
home, are proponents of strengthening the Iraq government.
But to really be effective in holding the fractious Iraqi society
together, the central government would probably have to resume
Saddam-like dictatorial powers—something that no one wants.
The United States should attempt to spur peaceful negotiations to
codify the de facto decentralization on the ground rather than
continuing its bid to impose an unworkable U.S.-style federation on
Iraq. Current U.S. policy will continue to exacerbate, rather than
dampen, the ongoing civil war.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.