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September 24, 2006
Iraq As Switzerland?

Sunni legislators in Iraq's National Assembly have agreed to allow debate on a proposal to restructure Iraq into three semi-autonomous cantons along federalist principles, a proposal that they have opposed since the formation of the new republic in 2003. The other factions agreed to set up a constitutional amendment committee in order to get the Sunnis to retreat on federalism:

Iraq's fractious ethnic and religious parliamentary groups agreed Sunday to open debate on a contentious Shiite-proposed draft legislation that will allow the creation of federal regions in Iraq, politicians said. ...

The deal opens the way for Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to move ahead politically and break a two-week political deadlock that threatened to further sour relations between the communities. If left unresolved, the deadlock could have further shaken Iraq's fragile democracy and led to more sectarian violence.

The federalism bill calls for setting up a system to allow the creation of autonomous regions in the predominantly Shiite south, much like the self-ruling Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Sunni Arabs have said they fear the legislation will split Iraq apart and fuel sectarian bloodshed.

The Kurdish north and Shiite south hold Iraq's oil fields, while the predominantly Sunni Arab areas are mostly desert.

Sunni Arabs say that before the bill can be passed, parliament must make headway to amend the constitution — a key demand they made when they agreed to join Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

One of the amendments they seek would weaken the ability to set up self-ruling cantons.

The suggestion to turn Iraq's government into one that resembles the canton system of Switzerland is not new, of course, Some American politicians have gone further than that, suggesting that Iraq simply be split into three nations of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites. That proposal would lead to disaster in the region, as the Turks would almost immediately have to deal with renewed Kurdish separatism and the Sunnis would starve without oil revenue. The Shi'ite state would eventually fall into Iran's orbit.

All of these outcomes could arise from this suggestion, too, and Iraqis will have plenty of difficulties avoiding them. Two issues present themselves almost at the start: oil revenue and security, both internal and external. One would presume that the Sunnis would insist on a revenue-sharing system if they allowed the Kurds and the Shi'ites to form semi-autonomous states, but it would remain to be seen whether that agreement would hold up after federalism gets applied. The federal government would have to retain control of the oil fields and their sales; otherwise, the potential for conflict over accounting appears high, especially given the level of mistrust between the three factions.

Internal and external security will be tougher to resolve. Will all three cantons support the new Iraqi Army? Right now, the Sunnis are underrepresented in the force, although one presumes that recruiting has picked up in the Sunni regions over the last year. More importantly, what happens when the cantons create their own security forces? The Shi'ites have the Mahdi Army, which would presumably get converted to an official canton police force if Moqtada al-Sadr winds up running the Shi'ite state. The Kurds have their peshmerga, and the Sunnis will no doubt use their own militias as official security forces. What happens along the borders of these new cantons, especially if the borders are disputed? It seems like a great way to ensure that the mechanisms of civil war will not just survive but to thrive.

The separation of the three factions into their own regions may help alleviate the violence and destruction seen in Iraq at the moment. It could solve it altogether. However, it seems more likely to simply postpone it -- and to give it the means to turn much more explosive later.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 24, 2006 9:26 AM

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Tracked on September 24, 2006 11:27 AM


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