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Friday, April 9

Some advocate letting Iraq split along ethnic lines

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - If Iraq appears to be coming apart at the seams, why not let it?

The looming threat of a civil war among Iraq's major religious and ethnic groups - the Sunni Arabs, the Shiites and the Kurds - has given rise to the idea of carving up Iraq along sectarian lines.

In a recent article, Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested, ``The only viable strategy, may be to ... move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.''

Indeed, modern Iraq is an artificial construction.

For centuries the Ottomans ruled the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds separately. But in 1921, the colonial British cobbled the three groups together and put them under the rule of a puppet monarch to create a convenient source of oil for England.

Iraq has managed to survive for decades in that form, held together for the past 25 years by the despotic iron rule of Saddam Hussein, who had little tolerance for sectarian bickering.

Even before Saddam was toppled, various Middle East experts were warning that without a strong central hand Iraq would break apart.

The Bush administration adamantly opposes a three-state solution for Iraq, and for good reason, said Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iraq at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

``You can't just blithely divide a nation,'' Bakhash said. ``It would invite invasion by neighboring countries desperate to protect their interests.''

A separate Kurdish state in oil-rich northern Iraq could foment a violent separatist rebellion among the already restive Kurds in neighboring Turkey eager to join the new state.

That almost certainly would prompt a military response from the Turks, as Kurdish uprisings have in the past.

Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, would probably seek to form stronger alliances with Iraq's majority Shiites, which could entail sending troops to defend against other intruders.

Saudi Arabia, with its overwhelmingly Sunni population, would not like to see a Shiite superstate on its northeast border, and might intervene to stop it.

If Syria perceived a land grab, it might rush in as well if only to get some of Iraq's massive oil reserves.

``The precedent of letting a nation break up in an already highly volatile part of the world would be extremely destabilizing,'' Bakhash said. ``It's not as simple as letting people who don't like each other separate.''