When the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of World War II, Britain carved up the empire into nation-sized chunks. One of those was named “Iraq.” Iraq contained three major populations: Shiite Muslim Arab, Sunni Muslim Arab, and Kurdish. (The Kurds are an ethnic group; most of them are Muslim.) The Kurds actually exist in several different countries and the issue of why an ethnicity of 30 million people does not have its own country will be the subject of a later article.
The fighting that took place in Iraq after the allied invasion in 2003 was mostly caused by rivalries between these ethnic groups. There are general regional trends as to where each group lives, with the Kurds inhabiting the north near Turkey, Syria and Iran, the Sunnis the west near Syria and Jordan, and the Shiites the east near Iran. However, there is significant mixing of the populations, due at least in part to the anti-Kurdish policies of Saddam Hussein who pushed Iraqi Arabs to migrate to the Kurdish areas in order to blur the boundaries and lay claim to oil deposits there. These blurred boundaries are the most dangerous areas, as I will explore below.
The sectarian fighting that the allies struggled to contain was due to the deep-seated strife between these populations. The strife is so extreme that people largely only trust people from their own group. This makes governing the country jointly almost impossible. The constitution left in place by the allies tries to enforce a power-sharing arrangement that assures the smaller groups won’t get trounced. But that constitutional order began to break down as soon as the allied withdrawal was complete, with the Prime Minister (who is a Shiite) accusing the Vice-President (a Sunni) of running death-squads. The VP sought protection from the President (Kurdish). So you can see how well that constitution is working.
Instead of trying to force people who hate one another to live together, why not let them live separately? The partition of Iraq may in fact be inevitable, but it would have been much better if it had happened when we were there. To see why we need only look back to the end of World War II again, this time in British India. As the British made plans to leave, the intense hatred and distrust between many Muslims and Hindus led to the idea of partition. The British helped organize partition by drawing the line on maps for the new boundary between a smaller India and the new state of Pakistan. But then the British left quickly, and a sort of civil war began. Muslims tried to flee west toward Pakistan, and Hindus tried to flee east toward India. But seven million lives were lost as people tried to move and were attacked en route, or were attacked at home so that they would move.
It is the mistake of the British in India that we could have avoided in Iraq. We could have not only drawn the boundary lines but also kept the peace while millions of people moved in an orderly fashion, by selling one house and buying another, from one area to another, before finally official partition took place. With few troops now in Iraq and no willingness to return there in significant number, Iraq is on its own. If a civil war starts now, and thousands or millions start to flee for friendlier turf, there could be a repeat of 1947 India.
In our next war, we should take a more pragmatic approach to international boundaries. And in my next article on this topic, I’ll explore the plight of the Kurds, one of the largest ethnic groups in the world to not have its own sovereign nation. And for a couple examples of other places that need or needed partition, see my previous article.