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Iraq: Setting Limits
Published on Tuesday, January 25, 2005 by
Iraq: Setting Limits
by Bob Burnett

The Iraqi elections provide the American people with an opportunity to consider whether they want to continue the obdurate path chartered by the Bush Administration or, instead, go in another direction. To chose the path not taken, we will first have to learn to set limits.

If you've been in therapy, or know therapists, you understand that a classic therapeutic challenge is learning how to set limits; for example, how to escape an abusive relationship. The citizens of the United States are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with the Bush Administration, one that shows many of the classic patterns of abuse: We have been lied to and our resources squandered, yet we keep coming back hoping for the "goodies." For Americans to escape this abuse, we must set limits with Bush and company.

The first step will be for the public to acknowledge that we placed our trust in an Administration that has shown dreadful judgment by, first, invading Iraq without an exit plan, and then, refusing to answer essential questions about the duration, cost, and morality of the occupation. An objective reading of the Administration's record reveals a pattern of egregious bungling; indeed, we assaulted Iraq to make sure that it was not a source of support for Al Qaeda and, instead, have turned it into a breeding ground for terrorists.

The second step, one that proceeds from a new willingness to question the Administration's basic assumptions, will be to question a fundamental premise of the occupation: that Iraq is one country. The Bush Administration has stuck to this idea and the related notion that Iraq is best governed by a national assembly - to be established through the Byzantine January 30th electoral process. They have refused to acknowledge the reality that Iraq is not a real country with deep historical roots; it is an artificial entity, manufactured by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted that Iraq is based upon "tribes with flags," and therefore, has little of the Western sense of country, "based on voluntary social contracts between the citizens inside [its] borders." Nonetheless, the Bush Administration has insisted on treating Iraq as it were a stable national entity and the US was reenacting the occupation of Germany, after the end of World War II.

The reality is that Iraq is three different countries: A primarily Kurdish state in the north, inhabited by non-Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims (roughly 20% of Iraq's population); a mostly Sunni state in the center, inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims (another 20%); and a large Shiite state in the South (the remaining 60%). These groups have widely differing attitudes about the US and their future; the insurgency is strongest in the central region and weakest in the Kurdish north.

The third step will be to recognize that we are dealing with three different states and, therefore, Iraq should not be considered a republic, but, instead, a federation where each regional group has their own government, and there is a minimal central administration to deal with problems such as the equitable distribution of petroleum resources and the relocation of displaced groups. (This solution was first proposed by Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece on November 25, 2003.)

Changing our conception of Iraq is essential if we are ever to develop a workable occupation plan. For example, the Kurds welcome the American forces and would cooperate in sealing their borders, training a functional Kurdish security force, and holding free elections. The US could establish a valid timetable for ending the occupation in the Kurdish state, and withdrawing most of our troops.

It is widely believed that a comparable plan would work in the Shiite southern region, particularly if America enlisted the cooperation of Iran.

It is only in the central region, the deadly "Sunni triangle," that the immediate prospects for stability are dim. We should respond with bold action: withdraw our troops from the central region and ask an independent entity, such as Syria, to help facilitate the move to self-government. While the Sunnis get their act together, we should direct the bulk of reconstruction dollars to the Kurds and Shiites (and let indigenous contractors do most of the work). We should seal off the Sunni area until order returns.

The occupation has gone so badly, and America is in so deep, that there remains no painless solution to the problem of how we get out. But successful business practice teaches that there is a singular difference between a satisfactory and an optimal solution. Partitioning the country into three states, and then withdrawing from Sunni region, is a satisfactory solution - one that can only be achieved when Americans learn to set limits.

Bob Burnett ( is the former publisher of IN THESE TIMES and a Berkeley, CA writer and activist.


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