Partitioning Iraq

James Forsyth is afraid the “no good options” meme that pundits (including yours truly) have applied to the Iran nuclear crisis may be about to be applied to Iraq. He rightly notes, however, that the resurgently popular idea of dividing the country into sectarian mini-states is among the worst of the bad options:

As one of my smartest friends likes to say, partitioning Iraq would be like the partition of India—in which more than half a million people died—but with added AK-47s. As Anthony Cordesman pointed out when Joe Biden and Les Gelb floated this idea earlier this year, "Iraq is heavily urbanized, with nearly 40 percent of the population in the multiethnic greater Baghdad and Mosul areas. We have seen in Northern Ireland and the Balkans how difficult it is to split cities." For difficult, read bloody.

Not that the alternatives aren’t bloody, either.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    If the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Iran can’t be closed, how are the borders between these autonomous regions (or new states) to be closed? Splitting Iraq leaves the western Sunni Arab region virtually without resources. How that reduces their motivations to create mayhem in the rest of Iraq eludes me.

  2. I hate to say it, but one of the most successful suppression of ethnic violence was communist Yugoslavia. With the collapse of the evil empire, the suppression was lifted and we’ve see the results. The lesson from there is that ethnic violence can be suppressed and delayed, but not eliminated.

    Even so, I think the partition isn’t a good idea. It will solve some problems, but create others.

  3. McGehee says:

    He rightly notes, however, that the resurgently popular idea of dividing the country into sectarian mini-states is among the worst of the bad options

    I suspect Muqtada al-Sadr’s actions in southern Iraq may have been inspired somewhat by the partition talk.

  4. DC Loser says:

    McGehee, I’m not being argumentative here, but my reading of that event is that Sadr is losing control of parts of his own JAM militia. He’s trying hard to bring them under control. Sadr does not support a partition as he wants ALL of Iraq under Shiite control.

  5. Anderson says:

    Mark Mazower certainly implies, in his Dark Continent, that the expulsion of 12 million Germans into postwar Germany did a lot to reduce the risk of war in the 2d half of the 20th century.

    Where religious or nationalist animosities are murderous, is partition inescapable?

    And, just for kicks, don’t forget Wolfowitz telling the Congress that Iraq didn’t have any internecine animosities that might tend to complicate an occupation. He and Doug Feith have got to hold the Stupidest F—ing Man Alive award in tandem.