The Challenge of Federalism: Iraq Set to Disintegrate, New Study Warns

It's no secret that Iraq is a politically, ethnically and religiously fractured country. But a new study released in Berlin on Wednesday argues that federalism remains the country's last, best hope. Otherwise, it may fall apart completely.

According to a new report, Iraq's future is not too bright.
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According to a new report, Iraq's future is not too bright.

"Already today, the main priority is to prevent Iraq from breaking apart completely." That is the sober conclusion of a new study released Wednesday in Berlin on the situation in Iraq. Called "Iraq Between Federalism and Collapse," the study argues that there is little hope of a centralized power in Iraq and that the country's future depends on walking the fine line between decentralizing power and civil war.

The report, written by terror and Middle East expert Guido Steinberg under the auspices of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, says that a far-reaching decentralization is the country's only hope. And if it fails, the result could be devastating, including the possibility of full-scale civil war complete with foreign intervention.

"The basic assumption of this study," Steinberg writes, "is that a federalist solution will be the only possibility to maintain Iraq as a single country. The most important role of German and European policies should therefore be that of supporting steps toward a peaceful federalist solution."

That Iraq is threatening to break apart is, of course, nothing new. The Kurds in northern Iraq have established an autonomous Kurdish region. In the south of the country, the Shiites are interested in doing the same. Meanwhile, in the center of Iraq, violence remains part of everyday life as Shiite and Sunni extremist groups continue campaigns of car and suicide bombings.

Fractures, in other words, are not difficult to find. And the fractures are made all the worse by the fact that the groups involved rarely have the best interests of Iraq foremost in mind. In northern Iraq, the study points out, the two leading Kurdish political parties are demanding that the city and province Kirkuk be joined with the Kurdish dominated region -- a demand, Steinberg writes, that is likely to increase violence in the until now largely quiet north.

Indeed, the massive attack in the Kurdish area near the Syrian border on Tuesday seemed like proof that sectarian violence is rapidly spreading north. Four truck bombs exploded in villages killing at least 200 people. The bombs were likely detonated by Sunni groups angered by a Kurdish-speaking sect called the Yazidis. In April, a Yazidi woman was stoned to death for dating a Sunni Arab.

Elsewhere, the Sunnis are wary of attempts by the numerically superior Shiites to consolidate political power in the south and center of Iraq. And a large group of Shiites, Steinberg points out, are likewise against an autonomous Shiite region, meaning that there is a threat of an escalating intra-Shiite conflict as well.

The sectarian wrangling means, the study says, that the best solution -- that of a federalism free of ethnic and religious divisions -- has largely been rendered impossible. But even a federalism resting on the ethnic divisions that have been established seems challenging given the opposition from within the Shiite and Sunni factions to such a solution.

And that's not to mention the opposition of other countries in the region. "The discussion within Iraq is influenced to a large degree by the interests of neighboring countries," the report states. "Due to their potential to become involved, the Iraq federalists have to take their positions into account. And Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria all reject the ethnic-religious federalism model out of hand." Military intervention from Iraq's neighbors to protect their interests, particularly from Turkey in the north, is a very real possibility, the report warns.

The US has been pressuring parties on all sides of the discussions to come up with a compromise agreement and to solve a number of divisive issues, including the explosive discussion over sharing oil revenues among regions and groups. But the current Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is struggling to make any headway at all, with 11 cabinet ministers recently having quit in protest.

All of which makes the immediate future in Iraq look bleak, Steinberg writes. The alternative to a successful federalism solution, he indicates, is chaos, more violence and a Shiite dictatorship. "Iraq is a failed state," the report concludes, "and will remain unstable for the foreseeable future."

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