The State Department Really Doesn’t Want to Break Up Iraq

A decentralized federal system is best for Iraq and for U.S. interests, a State Department official says.

Iraqi MP Qutaiba al-Jubouri waits for the start of the first session of the new parliament in Baghdad.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
July 23, 2014, 11:37 a.m.

The solu­tion to the crisis in Ir­aq is not to break the coun­try up in­to two or three states, ac­cord­ing to a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial. The best al­tern­at­ive is to set up a fed­er­al sys­tem that dis­trib­utes power to loc­al gov­ern­ments and se­cur­ity forces, al­low­ing for some re­gion­al autonomy while keep­ing the en­tire coun­try un­der Bagh­dad’s fed­er­al um­brella.

The of­fi­cial, Deputy As­sist­ant Sec­ret­ary of State for Ir­aq and Ir­an Brett McGurk, ad­voc­ated for a “cent­ral-re­gion­al-pro­vin­cial” ap­proach to se­cur­ity and gov­ernance in front of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. In such a sys­tem, loc­al cit­izens would be in charge of se­cur­ing the re­gions where they live, with backup from the state (this mod­el apes the U.S. Na­tion­al Guard). The Ir­aqi Army would “rarely de­ploy in­side cit­ies,” stay­ing back to provide over­all sup­port and pro­tect na­tion­al bor­ders.

The Ir­aqi con­sti­tu­tion calls for a sys­tem of “func­tion­al fed­er­al­ism,” but such a sys­tem was nev­er truly im­ple­men­ted. The State De­part­ment wants Ir­aq to move in the dir­ec­tion of fed­er­al­ism to help it strike a bal­ance between the in­de­pend­ence of Ir­aq’s three main groups — Sun­nis, Shiites, and Kur­ds — and the cre­ation and main­ten­ance of a ro­bust, cent­ral­ized state that can pro­tect it­self from out­side forces like the cur­rent ad­vance of mil­it­ants be­long­ing to the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia. “This mod­el of func­tion­al fed­er­al­ism is feas­ible and ne­ces­sary,” McGurk said.

Rep. Eli­ot En­gel, D-N.Y., pushed back on McGurk’s in­sist­ence that Ir­aq be kept in­tact. “Ir­aq is not a real state,” En­gel said. “Why should we be ob­lig­ated to main­tain its bor­ders?” McGurk countered by point­ing to a de­vel­op­ing new gov­ern­ment in Ir­aq, which had its first par­lia­ment­ary ses­sion Wed­nes­day after the elec­tion of a new speak­er. The body met to elect a pres­id­ent, but post­poned that vote un­til Thursday. The Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment has agreed to elect a Kur­d­ish pres­id­ent, a Shiite prime min­is­ter, and a Sunni speak­er of the Par­lia­ment since 2003.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have de­scribed the ideal out­come in Ir­aq as “loose fed­er­al­ism” be­fore, and Za­l­may Khal­iz­ad and Ken­neth Pol­lack, of the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and Brook­ings, re­spect­ively, re­cently called the idea the “least bad solu­tion” for the coun­try. Fed­er­al­ism “is the best out­come for all con­cerned, in­clud­ing the United States,” they wrote. McGurk’s testi­mony shows that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion agrees.

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