WASHINGTON — In 2007, when Iraq was in the throes of a sectarian war, then-Senator Joe Biden said there was only one viable long-term solution to stabilize the country: allow the Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish populations to carve out semisovereign territories as part of a loose confederation.
“If the United States can’t put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind,” wrote Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Critics at the time said Biden’s proposal would effectively partition the country. But seven years later, with Biden in the vice presidency and Iraq splintering by the day, a number of analysts said that creating three semiautonomous regions along ethnic and religious lines may now be the best option to create stability and avoid an open-ended conflict.
In fact, such a structure is called for in the Iraqi constitution but has never been implemented, specialists point out.
The search for a workable political settlement is as urgent as ever now that Sunni militants — including fighters from the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — have taken over large swaths of the country, Kurdish militias have consolidated their hold on the north, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shi’ite majority struggle to prevent a collapse of the central government.
“If there is no political deal, if ISIS takes over Sunni areas, and if Maliki insists on remaining prime minister, then you could see a potential scenario where it is de facto that this is what is going to happen,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as US ambassador to Iraq between 2005 and 2007. “The Kurds have already taken the areas that they control.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is inspired by the Al Qaeda terrorist group and is seeking to establish a militant Islamic “caliphate” in the region. It has reportedly joined forces with remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was toppled in the US-led 2003 invasion. Together, they have seized control of major areas in Iraq and neighboring Syria, mired in its own civil war for the past four years.
But stopping them will require a more capable fighting force that the heavily Shi’ite Iraqi security forces, which fled in the face of the onslaught, according to military specialists.
When the US withdrew its forces at the end of 2011 — after failing to get the Iraqi government to agree to a deal that would have allowed a residual US force to remain — it provided little support for the Iraqi security forces it had trained, said Frederick W. Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the intellectual architects of the 2007 surge of US forces.
“When [the Iraqi forces] were built, it was expected that we would continue to provide them with critical support,” he said. “We gave them none. As a result, they found themselves in a fight they were not prepared for.”
For example, he said the Iraqi forces need surveillance aircraft, intelligence-gathering equipment, and possibly direct strikes and assistance from US air and ground forces.
Another major impediment to a viable power-sharing arrangement is Maliki, a number of specialists and former government officials said.
Maliki, who spoke with Biden on Thursday, has refused to carry out the spirit of the Iraqi constitution and has severely alienated the Sunni and Kurdish communities.
“His force of strength is within the Shia community and therefore that is what he consolidated,” said Nabeel Khoury, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “He wasted several years of opportunities with the Sunnis to his west and the Kurds to the north.”
But the idea of encouraging the establishment of some version of a tripartite Iraq has gained new credence in some quarters as a result of the spiraling situation.
The federalized system calls for a central government in Baghdad to be responsible for energy as well as finance and border patrol. The Kurds in the north, the predominately Sunni areas in the north and west, and the Shi’ite majority in Baghdad and in the south would effectively control everything else, including their security.
Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, crafted the Iraqi federalism proposal with Biden seven years ago. He said in an interview that he has received more than a dozen calls from influential foreign policy thinkers in the last several days about the idea.
“I think it is their last chance,” Gelb said of the Iraqis. “They could prevent the worst by actually implementing the constitution and creating a federal system. The Iraqis who wrote [the constitution] had some sense. They knew it was the only way to keep the country at whole and at peace.”
Joseph Braude, a Middle East expert at Al-Mesbar, a think tank based in the United Arab Emirates, agreed that some sort of three-part governing system appears to be the only way to ensure long-term stability.
“I think that confederation is the only way to preserve the map of Iraq,” Braude said.
Nevertheless, he worries that the years of sectarian violence in Iraq now make reaching such an accommodation exceedingly difficult.
“I think the prospects for a confederation were greater in 2003 than they are today,”
Braude said. “The bloodletting over the last 11 years have rendered chances for negotiations between the three regions much lower. But you have to look for something.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect first name for Nabeel Khoury.