By BARRY SCHWEID, AP Diplomatic Writer 35 minutes ago
Limiting the power of Iraq's central government and giving more control to ethnically divided regions might lead to large-scale violence and intervention by neighboring countries, an analyst says.
If such proposals, sometimes called federalism or "soft partition," were adopted, widespread bloodletting could occur and "local atrocities seem all too likely," according to Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Political instability could ensue and Iraq's economic development could be crippled, said Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon.
Iran and others would try to exploit Iraq's weakness and divisions, he wrote in a report released Wednesday. He added that Iraq is divided along sectarian and ethnic lines in many areas by the force of extremists. The Kurds are the only faction that shows major popular support for any formal effort at partition.
The federalism proposal is gaining ground in think tanks as a way to ease tensions among Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
Edward P. Joseph of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, are among those who have proposed dividing Iraq into three main regions.
Under the plan, each region would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance, as the Kurds have done northern Iraq.
The most prominent advocate in Congress is Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate who has sponsored with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., also a White House hopeful, a nonbinding resolution that won Senate approval last month.
Republicans supported it only after the measure was amended to make clear that President Bush should press for a new federalized system only if the Iraqis wanted it.
The power-sharing idea is similar to the arrangement established in ethnically divided Bosnia in the 1990s.
Biden wrote Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker this month that the proposal does not attempt to partition Iraq or divide it along ethnic or sectarian lines.
The U.S. Embassy and some Iraqi politicians had described the proposal as an attempt to partition Iraq into three separate states.
"To the contrary," Biden wrote, "it calls for keeping Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its constitution."
"A federal Iraq is a united Iraq, but one in which extensive powers devolve to the regions, with the central government responsible for truly common concerns," Biden wrote.
Still, Cordesman said any form of formal federalism or partition could be dangerous.
Deriding the description "soft partition" as a cruel oxymoron, he said "virtually every aspect of sectarian and ethnic struggle to date has been brutal, and come at a high economic cost to those affected."
"The reality is that partitioning must be described as 'hard' by any practical political, economic and humanitarian standard," Cordesman said.
And, he said, "the U.S. is in a poor position to encourage partitioning or federalism when Iraqi public opinion polls show that most Iraqis do not want such divisions to take place."