More Than a Question of Semantics in Iraq

While pundits and politicians are squabbling over semantics, the death toll for American troops will soon surpass the number murdered on Sept. 11.

Early last month, Bessam Ali, my Skype acquaintance from Iraq, wrote to tell me that his Baghdad home became collateral damage in an attack by the Medhi Militia. His family escaped unharmed, but their material livelihood has been decimated.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the talk of the nation has centred on whether to define the staggering bloodshed in Iraq as civil war or merely sectarian violence (what the difference is, I’m not so sure). Or perhaps it can be characterised as the “birth pangs of democracy.”

Does it matter? While pundits and politicians are squabbling over semantics, the death toll for American troops will soon surpass the number murdered on Sept. 11, and Iraqi civilians are being killed at a rate not imagined under former ruler Saddam Hussein.

The noise generated from debating the terminology is drowning out a much more valuable discussion about what to do next. There are no good options remaining for this fantastically flawed freedom-fighting foray, but there are less bad ones.

American officials sound silly when claiming a political solution exists to end the chaos, and such comments underscore their lack of understanding of that region’s history and motivations. What we see as modern day political entities violently jockeying for power, many Sunni and Shi’a hardliners see as a rematch of the sixth century Battle of Karbala.

I always support intercultural coexistence, but the increasingly gruesome reality in Iraq makes clear that the sources of instability within the Sunni and Shi’a communities are currently too great to contain within a single, centralised state. Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish populations must each feel a sense of ownership over their piece of Iraq, which is why the country must be divided into autonomous, but not fully independent, regions.

The international community should convene an all-inclusive conference to begin the federation process.

First, conference participants must determine where on the map to draw the lines dividing the newly established regions. Second, they would have to reach a mutual understanding regarding territorial integrity and the preservation of human rights for those that may not relocate to their own sect’s area of dominance. Third, all groups must work towards regional stability and cooperation.

Only Iraq’s army and oil would remain centralized. The former composed by so as to reflect the country’s various cultures and groups; the profits from the latter maintained in an Iraqi-controlled, but internationally-monitored, account, dispersed proportionally amongst the three regions.

As for the United States and its dwindling coalition of the willing, decentralizing Iraq would allow not for immediate withdrawal, but at least for a consolidation of forces. U.S. troops, smaller in number than their current presence, would have to remain between the three regions, as well as scattered throughout Iraq’s security apparatus.

The international community would need to handle the mass migration that would result from formally dividing Iraq. And all countries, both inside and outside the region, must commit to a true reconstruction of Iraq, one that not only rebuilds the army and police (as is the current emphasis) but also rebuilds a broken economy and education system using local assets supported, not dominated, by foreign companies.

For sure, this plan is not utopia. Translating it to reality would prove difficult, and certain aspects of it may be entirely unattainable. But the current talking points are even worse options. Stay the course is as meaningless as it is ignorant. A precipitous withdrawal is both logistically and strategically stupid.

But regional autonomy would yield three key benefits. First, eliminating Baghdad as the one and only centre of power also eliminates the violent contest for that power among Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.

Second, separate Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish dominated regions would scare Iraq’s neighbors enough to want to contribute to its stability and security. Iran would not want the Sunni population to challenge its interests, and the same for Turkey with the Kurds, and Jordan and Syria with the Shi’ites. The end result: a balance of power that allows Iraq’s three groups only enough strength to govern themselves.

Finally, federation allows for a diminished U.S. presence, thereby giving the next president a chance to refocus on the long-term health of American foreign policy. And that begins with a massive diplomacy effort aimed at redefining our global footprint, and an equally intensive push for energy independence.

But so long as we continue an inane deconstruction of “civil war,” we risk not only defeat, but worse, irrelevancy to a region that remains potently relevant to us.

Bill Glucroft is a student of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service.