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Rethinking the Political Future: An Alternative to the Ethno-Sectarian Division of Iraq

57 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2008 Last revised: 12 Jan 2009

Paul R. Williams

Public International Law & Policy Group; American University

Matthew T. Simpson

Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Date Written: November 2008


A number of prominent American law makers and foreign policy shapers have strongly advocated for the soft, and sometimes hard, partition of Iraq - either through the creation of a loose federal structure based on ethno-sectarian lines, or through its outright partition. These commentators have prophesized that the ethno-sectarian division of Iraq "may soon be all we have left."

In fact, the ethno-sectarian division of Iraq is fraught with logistical infeasibilities and dangers that threaten to compound the issues facing the people of Iraq instead of solving them. The political solution rests not on a return to failed approaches of division and entrenched conflict, but rather on the construction of a viable modern federal state that promotes unity, political compromise, and consensus building.

To address the question of whether the future of Iraq rests with ethno-sectarian division or with multi-ethnic federalism, this Article first addresses the ideas behind ethno-sectarian division and describes the most prominent plans for the division of Iraq along ethno-sectarian lines. This Article then critiques such a division of Iraq by: (1) identifying the overwhelming lack of popular support for such a division; (2) exposing the practical and political difficulties of dividing a state as diverse and heterogeneous as Iraq; (3) discussing the likelihood that ethno-sectarian division will increase violent conflict; (4) highlighting the lessons of prior ethno-sectarian divisionist attempts; (5) noting insurmountable constitutional hurdles; and (6) setting out the significant signs of recent progress and cooperation in the Iraqi political framework.

Next, this Article sets forth a plan for an enhanced federal structure based on the existing Iraq Constitution and recent Iraqi laws. The proposal begins with the fundamental position that Iraq requires a federalist structure based upon an eighteen governorate model as set forth in the Constitution. With the sub-federal boundaries already drawn, Iraqis are in a position to devolve appropriate power to these entities in an asymmetric and gradual manner. With this power devolution, Iraq would benefit from the development of resource and revenue distribution systems to promote fair and equitable economic growth across the federation. Coordination mechanisms, such as framework legislation and dispute resolution committees, could be established to ensure that the transition to viable federalism occurs with minimal encumbrance. To respect the complex and diverse identities of Iraqis, the government must erect safeguards to protect the rights of sub-federal entities and Iraq's many minorities.

Keywords: Iraq, constitution, Biden, federalism, partition, division, ethnic, sectarian, ethno-sectarian, Brookings, Baghdad, Kosovo, PILPG, Security Dillema, Biden-Gelb, Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Hussein, Asymmetric, governorates, Minority, Revenue Sharing, Resource Distribution, Framework, Legislation, governance

Suggested Citation

Williams, Paul R. and Simpson, Matthew T., Rethinking the Political Future: An Alternative to the Ethno-Sectarian Division of Iraq (November 2008). American University International Law Review, Vol. 24, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Paul R. Williams

Public International Law & Policy Group ( email )


American University ( email )

4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

Matthew T. Simpson (Contact Author)

Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. ( email )

Washington, DC
United States

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