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It Is the Partition of Iraq that Would Be Truly "Artificial"

A steady stream of US commentators keep expressing support for the idea of some kind of ethnic partition, be it “soft” or “hard,” of Iraq. Despite the repeated warnings against division by military advisors and experts in humanitarian aid, the partition theme simply refuses to fade away from the American debate. One possible explanation for the strong attraction of the partitionist propaganda is its claim to resurrect what are taken to be “the long lines of history”; according to the partitionist canon, the Iraqis cannot live together because they have never done so in the past – at least not of their “free will.” Iraq is seen as “artificial,” a tripartite division is what is “natural.”

No appeal to history could have been more ironic. Had these proponents of partition bothered to check the facts they would have found that the long-term trends in Iraqi history point in exactly the opposite direction of what they advocate. Those who take the trouble to examine the weak links in the partitionist argument (Iraq’s monarchical era from 1921 to 1958, and pretty much everything prior to 1914) will find that not only does the country have a long history of coexistence, it also has considerable pre-modern roots as a proto-region – centralized under Baghdad, and associated with the name “Iraq.”

There are at least three critical mistakes in the standard partitionist account of Iraqi history. The first has to do with sect and territory. Partitionists commonly assume that Iraq was created from three Ottoman provinces which each had their ethnic and sectarian characteristics – Basra (Shiite); Baghdad (Sunni); Mosul (Kurdish). This is blatantly untrue. Basra was dominated demographically by Shiites, but the line of division between Basra and Baghdad was quite close to the Gulf, so there were in fact more Shiites in Baghdad, where all the Shiite holy cities were located as well. If anything, the Shiites were slightly better integrated in the politics of Baghdad than in Basra; in neither area was there a “Shiite state” or any call for one. Mosul, for its part, was essentially divided among Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and other smaller groups. Among historians, this account is uncontroversial.  It is amply and unequivocally documented in a variety of British and Ottoman sources from the time of World War I. Only sheer intellectual laziness can account for the widespread notion of a pre-Ottoman Iraq divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The second error in partitionist versions of Iraqi history is the claim that the situation in 1914 - at which point the area was subdivided into three provinces - represented the eternal configuration of pre-modern Iraq. But that subdivision dated back only thirty years! Before 1884, there had been long intervals of administrative unity between the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, sometimes including Mosul as well. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, under local rulers like Sulayman the Great (a pasha of Baghdad), the administrative map of Iraq approximated the modern-day situation. And even when there was formal separation between two or three entities, Baghdad repeatedly functioned as a supervisory “regional” capital for the entire area; appeals courts, military affairs and customs administration were among the areas of government where Baghdad had wider responsibilities and prerogatives beyond its own provincial borders.

The third and perhaps most serious error in the partitionist take on Iraqi history is the idea that the name of the country was somehow “invented” in 1920, or “borrowed” from some far-distant past. This is another contention found exclusively among armchair historians who have never seen actual documents from the period they talk about. The reason why no serious area specialist subscribes to this view is that it is impossible to maintain once one looks into written materials from before 1914. The word “Iraq” is simply all over the place. It can be found in the writings of British consuls like J.G. Lorimer; in the works of Persian diplomats such as Muhammad Hasan Khan Badi; and in the journal articles of many local intellectuals, including for example Anistas Mari al-Karmili. How can partitionists explain that already in 1923 – a mere two years after Iraq had supposedly been “invented” – a Shiite activist from Hilla, Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir, would write passionately about the strength of “Iraqi” nationalism among the people of Mosul? Was that the result of indoctrination by the British (whom Basir hated), or by King Faysal (who hardly had made any impact on the institutions of state yet) or perhaps the Baath party (which did not exist)? For the duration of the monarchy, sectarian relations in Iraq would remain overwhelmingly peaceable, if not entirely frictionless; only the gradual advance of Kurdish nationalism shows any convincing correlation with the plans being proposed by US partitionists today.

When confronted with these facts, partitionists tend to react in one of two ways. Most ignore the information altogether, preferring to cling to the idea of an “artificial” Iraq simply because that provides them with peace of mind. In predictable fashion, despite the overwhelming evidence, they go on ranting: “Iraq was cobbled together .…” The more sophisticated partitionist response is to accept the facts but to dismiss history as irrelevant in view of the horrific scale of the sectarian killings being perpetrated in today’s Iraq. The problem with that sort of approach is that, once the historical perspective is abandoned, the specter of myopia emerges. It becomes impossible to distinguish between long-term trends and more ephemeral (albeit horribly violent) eruptions. Those who choose to reduce Iraqi politics to the hysteria unleashed by the Samarra bombings in February 2006 risk making assumptions and policy decisions with wide-ranging implications based on a bout of temporary xenophobia instead of the true basic drivers of Iraqi politics. After all, when the false historical argument in favor of partition is subtracted, there really is not much left. Very few Iraqis south of Kurdistan are asking for sectarian division, none of the regional powers want it (except possibly Iran and Kuwait), and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds generally are against it (apart from al-Qaida, which would finally obtain its long-coveted manifest evidence of a Western conspiracy against the Muslim world).

Perhaps the greatest irony of the partitionist propaganda is the idea that what we are seeing today is somehow “natural” and an echo of past experiences in Iraqi politics. Any serious empirical historical investigation will show that it is the concept of three ethnic statelets – not the idea of a unified Iraq state with its capital in Baghdad – that lacks historical resonance. In a context when so many critical questions are being asked about the “short-lived” unitary state in Iraq, it is absolutely mind-boggling that no one has thought of shifting the burden of proof to the partitionists. Two out of three of their proposed statelets have never existed, and their targeted audiences have never asked for them. Why then should anyone expect such a thoroughly artificial system to become more successful, resistant against external and internal challenges, and politically stable than the existing one?