Partition not an option in Iraq

The death toll from last week’s staggeringly brutal attacks by suicide bombers on two small-town communities in northern Iraq has crept up above 500. Why did four truck bombers make these people their target? The mind struggles for an answer. The Yezidis are one of Iraq’s smallest religious minorities, who follow an ancient cult unique to themselves. They wield no political or economic power. They live in an area that is remote from the key cities at the eye of Iraq’s recurring hurricanes.

Yet there is a potential explanation for their killing, if such things can ever be explained. It carries a lesson for Iraq’s future that goes much further than the tragedy of two marginal communities, and by coincidence has echoes in other events that occurred last week — the ceremonies marking 60 years since India’s independence. The key word is partition, and the lesson is “Beware partition”.

To the bureaucratic eye, partition seems a neat solution. But it often creates more problems than it solves. Where does the new border line run, and who will be in charge of drawing it? In India Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer with no experience of the area, working largely with maps and consulting none of the affected people, carved up the subcontinent in less than five weeks. As he worked, ethnic cleansing and killing accelerated as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims tried to show they were the majority in every multicultural district.

What happens to minorities who are “left behind” and find themselves outside the new entity where their group forms a majority? They are often “transferred” against their will, or forced to flee like the Hindus of Lahore. Some argue that without partition the killing in India would have been worse. Independent India had then, and still has, more Muslim citizens than Pakistan — eloquent proof that they live normally in a state that prides itself on its multi-ethnic, multireligious identity.

Today’s Iraq is very far from that. But this does not mean that it cannot one day revert to the multicultural tolerance it enjoyed. Sectarianism was deliberately cultivated by Saddam on a “divide and repress” basis. The occupation forces then made the mistake of using sectarian and ethnic criteria for selecting the Iraqis they wanted as their postwar allies. Finally, attracted into Iraq by the chance to humiliate Americans as they were to Afghanistan against the Russians two decades earlier, Al Qaeda joined the mix by infiltrating Iraq and provoking sectarian violence.

Grim though the result is, today’s heightened ethnic and sectarian consciousness in Iraq’s towns and cities is not a result of ancient hatreds. It is too early to abandon hope that it can be reversed, or that Iraq can one day be liberated from the interference of foreigners, whether they are western troops or Islamic jihadis.

Meanwhile the deadline for the referendum on Kirkuk and the other contested regions in the north approaches. The priority must be to put it off until Iraq reaches some form of stability. It will be a bitter blow to the Kurdish political parties who have staked so much on it, but they will not risk violence in opposing a postponement. They have thrived in showing the world they can run their own region responsibly.

Let them be satisfied with what they have, and not insist on having more just now. — The Guardian