Fakhri Shehab: We must think the unthinkable: the break-up of Iraq

Present-day Iraq is an anachronism: it lacks historical legitimacy, realism and logic
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The Independent Online

Underlying this strategy is a false assumption, universally accepted and therefore not open to discussion: that the territorial integrity of Iraq must remain inviolate. Everyone involved seems to be agreed on this: the Iraqis themselves, the Arab League, the United Nations, the Coalition, Russia, the EU, Iraq's own immediate neighbours. Even Turkey, which lost Mosul and its oilfields to present-day Iraq following the First World War, seems to support the idea.

Only Israel stands alone, enigmatic and silent, in keeping with her diplomatic tradition. For the rest, Iraq's frontiers are quite simply a taboo subject.

It is time for this taboo to be lifted, before it is too late to stop an inevitable civil war. It is time to think the unthinkable, to consider altering a map drawn up in too much haste 80 years ago.

Present-day Iraq is an anachronism. As a political entity it lacks historical legitimacy, realism and logic. Like other colonies, it was invented for the convenience of its colonisers and not its inhabitants.Until its recent "liberation", Iraq was held together by outside authority or by force wielded by the likes of Saddam Hussein. The conflicting interests of its three demographic components have always meant, and still demonstrably mean, that within its present borders, democratic consensus is all but impossible. A more radical debate is required to take local interests into account.

In the north, the Kurds have divided loyalties between the state of Iraq and other Kurds - a people without a country, spread over Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, who now may see the prospect of a homeland with a handsome income from oil. In the south, Shias - who also have oil wealth - may look as much to fellow Shias in Iran as to an Iraq long-dominated by a Sunni minority.

The Sunnis, who are getting most of the blame for the present mayhem, have also the most to lose from a democratic vote carried out under occupation, having neither oil nor a majority - only weapons and a willingness to use them. So long as they see no option, other than extinction or civil war, the running sore of Iraq is bound to remain open.

Up for discussion should be some loose federal framework, to be agreed by the other two factions and offered to the Sunnis - with a choice between joining in or negotiating a more acceptable partnership with any of Iraq's neighbours. Based upon this formula, they might find their fellow Sunnis, in Jordan, Syria or Saudi Arabia, a willing potential partner. The intractable problem of reconciling conflicting interests and loyalties within one state would thus be realistically addressed.

The proposal is not so unthinkable as it may at first seem: Sunnis have lived and done business together for 500 years as part of the Ottoman empire long before today's artificial frontiers were dreamed up. And stability being good for everybody, a nudge from the USA could steady Saudi nerves.

It goes without saying that what is suggested is a very broad idea, put forward solely to prevent further bloodshed. Its essence is to replace the unjustifiably sanctified Anglo-French legacy, and the more recent Coalition legacy, with one chosen by the parties concerned. Everything possible should be left open to negotiation: the division of oil, water, access to the sea, assessment and division of current state fixed assets and liabilities. The UN, the Arab League, the US, EU and Russia may be invited to serve as an adviser-observer body, remaining in the background to offer assistance.

As an Iraqi, born and raised in Iraq as the descendant of two Muslim families, including Shias and Sunnis, I received my early education in monarchical Iraq. I found myself in a senior position in its civil service when the 1958 revolution broke out and the king was assassinated. I saw the horrors and I foresaw the aftermath. If I, as an Iraqi who yearns for peace and loves his fellow countrymen, can contemplate a redrawing of frontiers that have existed for a mere 80 years - a tiny fraction of a 5,000-year history - why cannot others do the same?

Whatever the difficulties, the Iraqi people deserve a fresh start - of their own choosing.

The author is the former Chief Economics Adviser to the Emir of Kuwait and Senior Research Fellow at St Anthony's College, Oxford