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Carve Up Iraq: Obsolete Borders and the Myth of Sovereignty

03/16/2008 11:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Consider a country so fractured by regional and religious feuds that the most
efficient entities are the organized crime rings cashing in on the chaos.

This was the dilemma facing NATO negotiators when they met in Dayton, Ohio, in
1995 to stem the seemingly unstoppable bloodshed in Bosnia. The result was a
plan to simply slice up the place like a hard salami, to scoot the corrupt
combatants to their respective corners of the conflict.

It was idiotic, it was vilified, it was a surrender of the fundamental
principles of sovereignty. But, what the hell, it worked pretty well. It was as
complicated a case of carving up a contested area as Iraq, but it was inarguably
the only peace plan that, since the end of the Cold War, seriously succeeded,.

A few pundits have dismissed the idea of re-mapping Iraq, but they offer nothing
but lame alternatives to the seemingly unsolvable slog in which the Sitting Duck
president has put this country. Remember, if you will, that the Dayton Accords
were perhaps the most savagely ridiculed peace plan since the Vietnam War.
Critics called it either tactically stupid, or an appallingly unethical solution
that would sanctify boundaries already written in blood by sectarian fighting.
It was, they said, the capitulation to what we used to call ethnic cleansing.

Yet the result was a boon to the innocent, the vast majority without an agenda,
the regular folks who could finally stop running and, therefore, dying. The kind
of folks that many of our U.S. troops, as I have seen firsthand, have mistreated
people they were supposed to protect.

So, concentrate the troops on patrolling the newly carved borders. Slice Sadr
City from Baghdad, cede the Sunni west-central and northern areas to the Sunnis,
sanctify the south for the Shiites, give the Kuds the Kurdistan in the north
just as they were promised after World War I. Then, they can have their own
little playground to wage civil war.

Why not? The British colonists drew their own random geometry to recreate once
was Babylonia, but is now called Iraq, which (less face it) does have a historic
claim to the portly pashas in overpaid Kuwait.

Sure, partitioning Iraq seems far-fetched, but less so than John McCain vowing
a century of war to make peace. Huh? Think back a scant decade: peace
prospects in Bosnia were no less daunting. As a reporter who covered that
conflict and most of the others of the era, even I thought it was futile. I also remember seeing it in action. After NATO-led Western allies concentrated 60,000 troops on policing these
boundaries -- instead of policing a country -- I saw a war that had killed 95,000
people in the previous four years suddenly stop.

If there is any kind of consensus in the United States about Iraq, it's that
American troops should be brought home as quickly as possible. Nobody can
agree -- or grasp -- an imaginative timetable that won't result in something akin to
anarchy. But the general feeling is that some Western presence will probably be
necessary until the next decade, at best.

If the reason for toppling Saddam Hussein was idiotic at the outset, abandoning
the country could cost more innocent lives than those lost during the dictator's
iron-fisted reign. (Which, nevertheless, was a grimly pragmatic counterweight to
the mullahs in Iran, not to mention the United States' brutal allies in
Pakistan, Egypt, even Mauritania).

The argument that borders are sacred was blown to bits not only at the end of
the Cold War, but the two world wars and colonial whims that preceded it. Yet
the most compelling -- if overlooked -- precedent came in 1991, in the aftermath
of the first U.S.-led incursion into Iraq. By voting to allow multinational
troops to stop Saddam from smothering a Kurd uprising that came in the wake of
his defeat by international forces in 1991, the United Nations essentially
embraced the fact that borders can be fluid things when all else fails. That
the United Nations could, indeed, sanction an intervention into a country when
one part was intent on destroying its rivals.

That decision, if nothing else, could provide enough precedent to encourage
other countries to take part in cleaning up the mess created by President Bush.
Why not spin Sadr City away from Baghdad? Cede the south to the Shiites? Give
the Kurds the defacto homeland they've been promised since the end of World War
I?

The key difference between partitioning Bosnia and divvying up Iraq? The
dumb-thug reputation of the United States created by George W., the most onerous
of his creepy legacies. Gone is the moral weight that the country needs to press
the factions in Iraq -- and key players in the West and the Middle East -- to stay in
a room until everyone agrees to a partition plan.

It will take a new chief executive and a union of allies to pull it off. The
new president inherits a mighty task in finding a reasonable solution to the
Iraq quagmire, but the right amount of charm, arm-twisting and diplomacy could bring nations with a stake in this crisis to pitch in. If not, the alternative could be a cut-and-run
strategy that left Somalia the perfect model of a failed state.

In the last generation alone, so many borders have shifted that an endless
succession of ethnic groups could lay claim to almost any swath of real estate.
The roughly 4.4 million Iraqis who have fled -- either to other countries, or to
strongholds of their own clans or clerics -- could have their own autonomous
regions that many have already occupied. Many, if not most, have retreated to
their own corners of the conflict.

Tactically speaking, the U.S. troops and whatever allies the plan attracts could
concentrate mainly on maintaining the new borders, instead of chasing insurgents
from hotspot to hotspot.

Several years ago, I wrote a book about people uprooted by the end of the Cold
War, a period in which one in every 100 people had to flee their homes. "Maybe
the solution is to step in fast and break up the fight, rather than agonize over
how people can live together," I argued. "Because maybe they can't."

Who knows? Maybe fencing off the factions could eventually consign old
animosities to the ether of history. Maybe, as has happened in Bosnia, those
internal boundaries will evolve into something more like stitches that keep a
wounded country together. Hell, maybe even long enough to heal without our
help.