Dividing Iraq to Save It

During the recent debate in Washington about what is gently termed the "soft partition" of Iraq, I have been remembering one of the macabre signature phrases of the Vietnam War: "It was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."

I know the senators who endorsed Sen. Joe Biden's plan to devolve power in a more federal Iraq don't mean to destroy the country. They want to save it. But like the unidentified U.S. Army officer who was quoted in 1968 after the destruction of a village called Ben Tre, they are cloaking expediency in the rhetoric of salvation.

Iraq may indeed separate into three semi-autonomous cantons -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish -- as Biden and others recommend. Looking at the sectarian strife plaguing the country, that often seems like an inevitable outcome. But this act of national dismemberment is not something that Americans should recommend. No matter how much blood and treasure we have spent in Iraq, we remain outsiders there. It's not our call.

The passage of the Biden resolution on Sept. 26 has already had one good consequence: It has made Iraqis angry and brought a rare moment of unity. Many of the leading Arab political parties in Iraq signed a joint statement denouncing what they called "the proposal for the U.S. government to adopt a policy to divide Iraq." The statement allied the backers of radical Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr with those of secular Shiite Ayad Allawi -- now there's progress! Absent were only the Kurdish parties, which want as much autonomy as possible from an Arab Iraq, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly known as SCIRI), which wants a Shiite ministate in the south.

Biden has been scrambling to clarify that he doesn't want the dissolution of the Iraqi state but more of the federalism that's in the new Iraqi constitution. And to be fair to Biden, he is one of the few political figures in either party who have tried to think of creative alternatives to the Bush administration's failing policy. But he has now encountered strong pushback from Iraqis, and he should understand better than most that this is a welcome development. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wisely stressed that the Senate resolution was nonbinding and didn't represent official U.S. policy.

"Don't be afraid of Iraqi sovereignty, even when it's expressed in ways you don't like." Gen. John Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, used to make that point to his commanders on every stop in the war zone. And that's the right prism for viewing the partition debate: When Iraqis get angry at congressional resolutions to divide their country, that's good; when they denounce trigger-happy Blackwater security contractors, that's good. When they propose a formal status-of-forces agreement limiting how and where U.S. forces will operate in their country, that's good. They are exercising Iraqi sovereignty.

One of America's mistakes in Iraq has been an easy contempt for that nation and its history. People often spoke of Iraq as an artificial construct of British imperialism and suggested that things would go better if, like the former Yugoslavia, it dissolved along its ethnic boundaries. Israeli analysts certainly encouraged that view. I wrote 25 years ago about an enthusiastic proposal by an Israeli academic in the journal Kivunim to dissolve Iraq into three enclaves. But such analyses overlooked the surprisingly durable Iraqi identity, which has persisted for centuries.

Historically, this was the land between two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, a fertile crescent stretching from the mountains in the north to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. There was a land of Iraq in 539 B.C., when the Persian emperor Cyrus captured Babylon and proposed to make it his capital. In his book "Understanding Iraq," the historian William R. Polk reminds us the name actually comes from the Persian "eragh," which means "the lowlands."

Certainly there was an Iraq in A.D. 680, when the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein was lured to what is now Karbala and was murdered. And that Iraqi Arab identity survived through the Ottoman centuries, when this land was administered in the three provinces that the British fused in 1920 to form the modern Iraq.

The Iraqis and their Arab neighbors will have a hard time forgiving America for the human suffering that has accompanied the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime. But if that story ends in the destruction of the Iraqi state, it will open a wound that may not be healed a century from now. Iraqis may ultimately decide they want a "soft partition." But until they do, we should not be in the business of dismembering a state.

David Ignatius