A Separate Peace: Leaving the Country to Save It

September 24, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the American Conservative on September 24, 2007.

Casablanca, Sept. 17, 2010—The international conference that opened in this beautiful city yesterday is expected to put some final touches on a United Nations‐​sponsored accord on the future of the new state being set up in Mesopo‐​tamia, the Confederation of Iraq and Kurdistan (CFIK). The agreement was reached in early July, following months of negotiations in Bern, Switzerland, where the Arab League, Iran, and Turkey, together with representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups in Iraq that have been fighting over control of the country, accepted the formula proposed by the two lead mediators, U.S. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and French Foreign Secretary Bernard Kouchner.

The agreement calls for the division of the former Iraq into two political entities—the Islamic Republic of Iraq (IRI) and the Kurdish Republic (KR)—that are delineated by the Inter‐​Entity Boundary Line and together form the decentralized CFIK. The accord also stipulated that the CFIK “belongs” to eight constitutive ethnic groups—Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, Persians, Shabaks, and Lurs—and provides for the protection of these groups through regional and international guarantees and the presence of international peacekeeping troops from NATO and the Arab League.

The accord also safeguards the rights of religious groups including Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Bahá’ís, Mandaeans, and Yezidis. The Sunnis residing in the IRI will be granted limited political autonomy in the provinces where they constitute a majority, mostly in provincial towns and rural villages in the Sunni Triangle. Local forces, augmented by police and military units from the Arab League and Pakistan, will help maintain security. Baghdad will be declared an “open city” for five years, with UN peacekeeping troops securing law and order. Eventually, the city will be reinstituted as the capital of the CFIR.

“The agreement reached in Bern is testimony to the willingness of all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, as well their neighbors in the region, to overcome deep‐​rooted differences,” Secretary Holbrooke said during a speech here three days ago. After expressing his gratitude to President Hillary Clinton—“at the other Casa Blanca” (“Casa Blanca,” of course, is “White House” in Spanish)—and to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for their contribution to the success of the conference, the U.S. chief diplomat turned to his French counterpart and, to the laughter of the audience, delivered the famous line: “Bernard, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

No one is expecting a “beautiful friendship” to dawn any time soon over Mesopotamia, where a civil war raged for nearly five years following the bombing of the Al‐​Askari Mosque in February 2006. More than 1.5 million Iraqis lost their lives, along with some 100,000 foreigners. The fighting also turned about 10 percent of Iraq’s 27 million citizens into refugees, as they fled ethnic cleansing operations by both Sunni and Shi’ite guerrillas.

Iraq now resembles Bosnia and parts of the former Yugoslavia at the height of the fighting in the 1990s, when each community fled to places where its members were a majority and could defend themselves.

But notwithstanding the tragic loss of life and the destruction that has taken place in Iraq, the dire predictions by former President Bush and his top aides —that the consequences of withdrawal would be cataclysmic—were not realized after the administration started to withdraw American forces in early 2008. Bush was forced to make that decision in November 2007, after most of the Democrats and close to half of the Republicans in Congress adopted a plan that called for drawing troops down to 80,000 by the following November and dispensing with most of the rest by the end of 2009.

In fact, as experts point out, the peak of the civil war in Iraq occurred before the start of the U.S. withdrawal around December 2007, when more than 2 million Iraqis had already left their homes and close to a million had been killed in the fighting. The U.S. pullout, which made it less likely that the Shi’ites could count on the Americans as their protectors of last resort, helped produce a military stalemate between Sunni and Shi’ite forces. The Iraqi security forces, which are mostly Shi’ite, could not fight to maintain control of Sunni areas, and Sunni insurgent groups quickly took over the Sunni areas. At the same time, the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces deployed to Sunni areas fled and returned to their families in Baghdad and in southern Iraq. In the aftermath of the Shi’ite pullout from Sunni areas of Iraq, the Sunni insurgent forces were not large enough to enter Shi’ite-dominated areas of Iraq or to try to win control of the central government.

Moreover, the rapid achievement of battlefield equilibrium made it less likely that either the regional protectors of the Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan) or of the Shi’ites (Iran) would become directly involved in internal Iraqi conflict. If anything, the American withdrawal produced incentives for the Saudis, Iranians, and the Turks to convene a Persian Gulf Security Forum (PGSF) to help co‐​ordinate their response to the situation in Iraq.

The only outside military intervention occurred in June 2008, when the Kurdish military took over Mosul and declared independence, and Turkish troops, after receiving a green light from the PGSF, occupied the Kurdish region. The Turks agreed to withdraw only after the Kurds, during negotiations under American auspices, reversed their decision to declare independence and promised to guarantee the rights of the Turkmen community in exchange for greater political autonomy in a future Iraqi confederation. At the same time, the Sunnis’ decision to accept limited political autonomy and not to form their own republic reflected their recognition that they lacked control of any sources of oil revenue.

Progress will be slow, but extending the American occupation would have only drawn out the civil war and prevented Iran from co‐​operating with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to bring stability. The agreement reached in Bern helped to formalize the equilibrium among Iraq’s communities and accelerate the evolution of Iraq into three separate, self‐​governing regions.

Asked to comment on these developments, former Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I don’t like to brag, but I predicted five years ago that the insurgency in Iraq was in the last throes.”

About the Author