WASHINGTON – As Islamic militants have advanced farther into Iraq’s heartland, the Obama administration has tried to avert all-out civil war by urging the Shiite Muslim-led government to share more power with alienated Sunni and Kurdish minorities. But if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to resist a political settlement, the United States and its allies could turn to an idea that was first floated – and roundly condemned – during the height of Iraq’s sectarian fighting eight years ago.
Many analysts and officials, including some in the Obama administration, believe that a possible fallback plan for reducing strife is to split Iraq into three largely autonomous enclaves – corresponding roughly to the dispersion of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds around the country – linked by a weak central government.
The idea came to attention in 2006 when then-Sen. Joe Biden and foreign policy analyst Leslie Gelb wrote an op-ed column advocating this “federalism” approach. At a time when most experts were looking to unify the country, the proposal was rejected by “every single Mideast analyst,” says Gelb. But now, with Iraq and neighboring Syria facing indefinite ethnic strife, the idea of a confederation is looking more attractive.
“People in the administration are interested,” said Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. If the advance of militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is halted and the political maneuvering in Baghdad yields a new leadership, he said, “I think you’ll see it floated.”
Any move to splinter Iraq into separate states would face enormous difficulties. Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites live side by side in key areas of the country, including in Baghdad and parts of the oil-rich north, which could make efforts to divide them a source of even greater upheaval. Nor is there any sign that the militants fighting government troopswould agree to a political settlement.
Indeed, on Tuesday, the leader of the extremist group that has overrun parts of Iraq and Syria called on Muslims around the world to flock to territories under his control to fight and build an Islamic state.
In a recording posted online, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared he wants to turn the enclave his fighters have carved out in the heart of the Middle East into a magnet for militants. He also presented himself as the leader of Islam worldwide, urging Muslims everywhere to rise up against oppression.
The audio message came two days after al-Baghdadi’s group, ISIS, unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it controls. It also proclaimed al-Baghdadi the caliph, and demanded that all Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.
With a third of the country now beyond Baghdad’s grip, an outcome more likely than formal partition could be de facto division of the country even as fighting continues for control of oil and scarce water resources, multiethnic towns, infrastructure and military bases, analysts said.
But the idea of greater federalism has been embraced by some Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni leaders, including Usama Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives.
Though the Obama administration’s policy is to press for a more “inclusive and responsive” Iraqi leadership, some U.S. officials say privately that a more decentralized structure might be the best outcome for a dire situation. (The White House wouldn’t comment on whether Biden still supports the federalism approach.)
Under the Biden-Gelb proposal, Iraq would retain its current borders. Its central government would be responsible only for policing borders, dividing oil revenue and coordinating foreign policy.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.