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opinion | Leslie H. Gelb

Best hope for Iraq is a loose confederation

A broken country

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-abadi (right) met with US National Security Adviser Tony Blinken in Baghdad.Iraqi Prime Minister's office via EPA

THERE IS little hope now of restoring a unified Iraq, let alone creating a new counterweight to Iran or Syria. Iraq is broken. It’s broken into its three natural and historical parts — the vast majority of Shiites in the south up to the Baghdad area, the minority Sunnis in the center who ran the country for hundreds of years and are now flirting with the Islamic State extremists, and the even smaller minority Kurds in the north, an ancient people forever dominated by outsiders.

Each contingent is mostly on its own, fighting in different ways for its own survival. Few are giving much real thought to making the country whole again. Their energies are devoted to surviving the jihadi onslaught, which caught them all — not just Washington — off guard.


The shame of it all is that the external threat of Islamic extremism is not uniting them in any way, as outside threats usually do. In fact Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites never shared much of a sense of loyalty to something called Iraq. The Kurds and the majority Shiites stayed in line and obeyed Sunni rulers for centuries, not out of any commitment to a Baghdad state run by Sunnis, but out of fear. Insofar as it was a state at all, Iraq was backed for hundreds of years by the Sunni Ottoman Empire. In the 20th century, as Iraq grew to resemble what is generally termed a state, it was run first by the British and after independence by Sunni dictators, like Saddam Hussein, who maintained ruthless control of the security forces. The recent “liberation” of Sunnis from Shiite control by the jihadis was no liberation at all; it was and is a new and more terrible threat to their freedom and identity. The Islamic State doesn’t want to free Iraq’s ethnic and religious parts; it wants to permanently enslave them under its fanatical black banner.

Of course, it didn’t have to come to this. Had the administration of George W. Bush and the Shiite regime it helped to install in Iraq been wiser, things might have ended up differently. In 2003, I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a “Three State Solution,” for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. My preference was not for an actual breakup of Iraq, but for a loose confederation, which I thought was the most that could be achieved. A couple years later, I wrote two op-eds with then-Senator Joe Biden urging the parties to fashion a federal solution.


Under this proposal, not unlike early American federalism, the three major groups would have considerable autonomy in their regions to run their own affairs. That arrangement would meet their major worry of domination by the Shiites or any one group from Baghdad. The central government in Baghdad would retain power over the currency, distribution of oil monies according to population size, and protection of border areas. Iraq would stay whole, and the parts could stay true to their own traditions and beliefs.

Some ideas along these lines even made their way into the new Iraqi constitution in 2005. Nothing, however, was done to implement them. The Shiites under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted on running the show, and they exhausted the loyalties of the Sunnis and the Kurds. And thus Iraq now exists in name only.


It’s a shame for them and for their neighbors. A single Iraq containing three constituent parts would mean stability for the country and the region. If Iraq remains a broken state, the parts will continue to fight each other as well as the Islamic State. And even after the Islamic State is checked years down the road, one can expect the Iraqis to fight among themselves over a distribution of the oil spoils, over territory, over trade, and what have you. These conflicts will tear the people apart on a permanent basis. We can see this now in the Kirkuk region. As soon as the Baghdad government was weakened, the Kurds moved in and claimed the oil rights and right of rule. None of these matters had ever been settled by negotiations, and certainly not with the considerable non-Kurdish population of Sunnis, Turkomen, and others.

Also, as much as Iraqi Shiites now look to and depend on Iran, they don’t want to be controlled by it. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs; Iranian Shiites are Persian. That difference means a lot to them, and their interests in the region don’t fully coincide. Iran wants to play a big role in the Middle East. Iraq would be satisfied with a more modest one and doesn’t want to be pushed into constant tensions with neighbors.

The George W. Bush administration had the chance to channel Iraqis in the direction of a federal state. Bush was calling the shots, but he didn’t do so. President Obama’s powers were much more limited as US forces were withdrawing and being asked to withdraw by Shiite leaders.


The new disaster gives rise to new possibilities. Washington can’t dictate a new, federal Iraq, but, for example, it can provide future arms and economic aid on condition that the Iraqi parties are mindful of somehow keeping their country whole.

It’s a hard task. But it needs to be pursued. Otherwise, Iraq will stay broken, neither a state nor a bunch of stable regions, only trouble.

Leslie H. Gelb is a former New York Times columnist and correspondent and a former senior official in the State and Defense departments. He is also president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.