Joe Biden was right about dividing Iraq

Biden, then a senator, championed a more federal system explicitly allowed by the Iraqi constitution (at the insistence of the Kurds), devolving power from the central government in Baghdad to the provinces. Although Biden denied it at the time, his proposal would almost certainly have led to the de facto soft partition of Iraq into three autonomous regions dominated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. A similar approach in the 1990s patched together Bosnia out of the detritus of the Balkans civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. In a 2007 op-ed, Biden warned, “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.”

He was ahead of his time. “Biden got it dead right, and I still think transitioning to a federal power-sharing arrangement is the only way to stop the killing and hold Iraq together,” says Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote the op-ed with Biden…

The way to stop the violence may be separation. “Iraq is at a crossroads, and I do think federalism could solve many of the problems we face,” said Osama al-Nujayfi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, speaking last week at the Brookings Institution. The Kurdish region in the north is already largely autonomous and peaceful, and at least two other provinces (including the strategically important and oil-rich Shiite region around Basra in the south) have begun the constitutional process for gaining regional autonomy. To date, their requests to the electoral commission in Baghdad to hold local referendums on autonomy, he said, have been ignored by the federal government and fiercely opposed by Maliki. “The government has a double standard, supporting some favored groups and oppressing others, and they are demanding their rights under the federal system spelled out in the constitution,” Nujayfi said. “If the government does not respect the constitution and the rule of law, then citizens will find alternatives. That is very dangerous, because some provincial governors are already talking about rebellion.”