The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] The Three-State Solution

November 25, 2003
The Three-State Solution

President Bush's new strategy of transferring power quickly to Iraqis, and
his critics' alternatives, share a fundamental flaw: all commit the United
States to a unified Iraq, artificially and fatefully made whole from three
distinct ethnic and sectarian communities. That has been possible in the
past only by the application of overwhelming and brutal force.

President Bush wants to hold Iraq together by conducting democratic
elections countrywide. But by his daily reassurances to the contrary, he
only fans devastating rumors of an American pullout. Meanwhile, influential
senators have called for more and better American troops to defeat the
insurgency. Yet neither the White House nor Congress is likely to approve
sending more troops.

And then there is the plea, mostly from outside the United States
government, to internationalize the occupation of Iraq. The moment for
multilateralism, however, may already have passed. Even the United Nations
shudders at such a nightmarish responsibility.

The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and
move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in
the center and Shiites in the south.

Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most of its money and
troops where they would do the most good quickly - with the Kurds and
Shiites. The United States could extricate most of its forces from the
so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing
American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American
officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis,
without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the

This three-state solution has been unthinkable in Washington for decades.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, a united Iraq was thought necessary to
counter an anti-American Iran. Since the gulf war in 1991, a whole Iraq was
deemed essential to preventing neighbors like Turkey, Syria and Iran from
picking at the pieces and igniting wider wars.

But times have changed. The Kurds have largely been autonomous for years,
and Ankara has lived with that. So long as the Kurds don't move
precipitously toward statehood or incite insurgencies in Turkey or Iran,
these neighbors will accept their autonomy. It is true that a Shiite
self-governing region could become a theocratic state or fall into an
Iranian embrace. But for now, neither possibility seems likely.

There is a hopeful precedent for a three-state strategy: Yugoslavia after
World War II. In 1946, Marshal Tito pulled together highly disparate ethnic
groups into a united Yugoslavia. A Croat himself, he ruled the country from
Belgrade among the majority and historically dominant Serbs. Through clever
politics and personality, Tito kept the peace peacefully.

When Tito died in 1980, several parts of Yugoslavia quickly declared their
independence. The Serbs, with superior armed forces and the arrogance of
traditional rulers, struck brutally against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

Europeans and Americans protested but - stunningly and unforgivably - did
little at first to prevent the violence. Eventually they gave the Bosnian
Muslims and Croats the means to fight back, and the Serbs accepted
separation. Later, when Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo rebelled
against their cruel masters, the United States and Europe had to intervene
again. The result there will be either autonomy or statehood for Kosovo.

The lesson is obvious: overwhelming force was the best chance for keeping
Yugoslavia whole, and even that failed in the end. Meantime, the costs of
preventing the natural states from emerging had been terrible.

The ancestors of today's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have been in Mesopotamia
since before modern history. The Shiites there, unlike Shiites elsewhere in
the Arab world, are a majority. The Sunnis of the region gravitate toward
pan-Arabism. The non-Arab Kurds speak their own language and have always fed
their own nationalism.

The Ottomans ruled all the peoples of this land as they were: separately. In
1921, Winston Churchill cobbled the three parts together for oil's sake
under a monarch backed by British armed forces. The Baathist Party took over
in the 1960's, with Saddam Hussein consolidating its control in 1979,
maintaining unity through terror and with occasional American help.

Today, the Sunnis have a far greater stake in a united Iraq than either the
Kurds or the Shiites. Central Iraq is largely without oil, and without oil
revenues, the Sunnis would soon become poor cousins.

The Shiites might like a united Iraq if they controlled it - which they
could if those elections Mr. Bush keeps promising ever occur. But the Kurds
and Sunnis are unlikely to accept Shiite control, no matter how
democratically achieved. The Kurds have the least interest in any strong
central authority, which has never been good for them.

A strategy of breaking up Iraq and moving toward a three-state solution
would build on these realities. The general idea is to strengthen the Kurds
and Shiites and weaken the Sunnis, then wait and see whether to stop at
autonomy or encourage statehood.

The first step would be to make the north and south into self-governing
regions, with boundaries drawn as closely as possible along ethnic lines.
Give the Kurds and Shiites the bulk of the billions of dollars voted by
Congress for reconstruction. In return, require democratic elections within
each region, and protections for women, minorities and the news media.

Second and at the same time, draw down American troops in the Sunni Triangle
and ask the United Nations to oversee the transition to self-government
there. This might take six to nine months; without power and money, the
Sunnis may cause trouble.

For example, they might punish the substantial minorities left in the
center, particularly the large Kurdish and Shiite populations in Baghdad.
These minorities must have the time and the wherewithal to organize and make
their deals, or go either north or south. This would be a messy and
dangerous enterprise, but the United States would and should pay for the
population movements and protect the process with force.

The Sunnis could also ignite insurgencies in the Kurdish and Shiite regions.
To counter this, the United States would already have redeployed most of its
troops north and south of the Sunni Triangle, where they could help arm and
train the Kurds and Shiites, if asked.

The third part of the strategy would revolve around regional diplomacy. All
the parties will suspect the worst of one another - not without reason. They
will all need assurances about security. And if the three self-governing
regions were to be given statehood, it should be done only with the consent
of their neighbors. The Sunnis might surprise and behave well, thus making
possible a single and loose confederation. Or maybe they would all have to
live with simple autonomy, much as Taiwan does with respect to China.

For decades, the United States has worshiped at the altar of a unified yet
unnatural Iraqi state. Allowing all three communities within that false
state to emerge at least as self-governing regions would be both difficult
and dangerous. Washington would have to be very hard-headed, and
hard-hearted, to engineer this breakup. But such a course is manageable,
even necessary, because it would allow us to find Iraq's future in its
denied but natural past.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former editor and columnist for The Times, is president
emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]