Partition in Iraq: A Way to Break Up the Fight?

United Nations (UN) Office of Humanitarian Coordinator Building in Baghdad, Iraq, after a truck bombing destroyed much of the building. Photo by James M. Bowman / USAF. 

With Iraq descending deeper into sectarian bloodshed, politicians and foreign policy experts alike have proposed partition as a solution. The idea of splitting Iraq’s warring factions and giving them their own space is certainly not new. Experts proposed the idea in 2007 when sectarian infighting in Iraq was thought to be at its absolute worst. To seriously consider partition, the United States must also account for the severe costs and far-reaching consequences of such action.

To begin with, partition is no panacea for civil conflict. If partitions are incomplete, or if hostile ethnicities aren’t fully separated, the effects can be just as bad as, if not worse than, no partition at all. The hasty demarcation of the former British Raj into India and Pakistan presents one of the worst-case scenarios. During the hasty devolution from colonial rule, the Kashmir territory was engulfed in competing claims by both Pakistan and India. The persistent Kashmir dispute brought India and Pakistan to blows in 1947, 1965 and 1999 and continues to dog their relations. Incidents like the Kargil conflict and 2008 Mumbai attacks both originated from the Kashmir dispute and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war on multiple occasions. Additionally, the UN’s failure to grant Bengalis (then East Pakistanis) their own sovereignty caused a bloody split from India and Pakistan that killed thousands and displaced millions in Bangladesh in 1971, creating some of the worst war-time atrocities seen since WWII.

Conversely, partitions like those in Cyprus can succeed at eliminating outright hostility, but not the underlying tensions that cause them. In Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had already been separated by both civil war and the racist policies of Cyprus’s Greek nationalist government, making the partition much cleaner. While not official, it was complete and effective at preserving peace, albeit a peace marred by mutual racial resentment and suspicion. The conflict still remains unresolved, and Greece and Turkey still vie for influence over the island, especially now that vast gas reserves have been discovered off Cypriot waters.

If Iraq were to be partitioned, sharing the oil wealth would become a highly contentious issue, as it has been with the two Sudans. Sudan and South Sudan split after years of conflict arising over Arab Islamic Northern Sudanese subjugating black Christian South Sudanese. Separating from its abusive neighbor has not fully solved the South’s problems. Disputes over ownership of Sudanese oil fields inflame already-frail relations between Sudan and South Sudan, even bringing the two nations to the brink of war in 2012 over the Heglig oil fields. Dividing oil resources in Iraq would be far more complicated. The logistics of oil extraction, piping, shipping, and payments are complex enough, but when done across multiple territories with competing interests, it becomes nearly impossible. The Sudan case demonstrates that partition does not prevent such disputes from happening, no matter how thoroughly lines are drawn, and while the Sudans avoided war, new nations in the Middle East might not be so lucky.

Successfully partitioning war-torn Iraq would be a massive undertaking, since each of the warring factions are advocating for their own autonomous, homogenous states. Any heterogeneity can create issues down the road, as it has with South Sudan. The country’s institutionalized favoritism of Dinkas inflames tensions with other groups in South Sudan and threatens to split the nation even further. Ensuring a clean partition would necessitate forcibly removing people from their homes and resettling them elsewhere, itself a violation of international law and a potential humanitarian disaster. In Iraq, this would be virtually impossible given how many communities have intermixed Shi’a and Sunni populations. Despite years of forced displacement and sectarian violence committed by all sides, significant sections of Iraq remain intermixed, and the Iraqi people’s will has kept together a country whose experiences would otherwise have torn it apart. Much like Iran and Egypt, Iraq’s basis in a former empire gives it a thread of nationality, however frail, to stitch its ethnicities together.

Even if such splits were possible for Iraq, creating separate sectarian nations would set off a monstrous chain reaction among surrounding states. A separate Iraqi Shi’istan would align more closely with Iran and grant it a more reliable base of support in the Middle East, forcing Saudi Arabia to escalate. The creation of any potential Sunnistan, as long as ISIS still exists, could potentially legitimize ISIS’s claims to a caliphate. Creating any sort of Kurdistan, either in Iraq or Syria, would inflame tensions with Iran and Turkey, who would respond violently to the creation of any independent Kurdish state. As Turkey demonstrates, the mere possibility of a Kurdish state is enough to spark violence. Therefore, while partition might ease the conflicts within Iraq, they would inflame sectarian tensions across the Middle East and potentially spark new conflicts, albeit international instead of intranational. It would burn down the house to fix the faulty plumbing.

Civil strife like that seen in Iraq is not caused by sectarian divisions but by failed state institutions and political exploitation of those divisions. Posner’s research on the Chewa and Tumbuka peoples of Africa highlights this phenomenon. In Zambia, these two peoples live harmoniously together, but in Malawi they are more hostile to one another. Posner traces this tension to the fact that in Malawi, Chewas, and Tumbukas are a larger demographic and thus ripe for exploitation by politicians eager to gain votes. In Zambia, they are a tiny proportion of the overall population and so politicians don’t tap into their differences.

This habit of stoking divisions for political gain has played out on a much larger scale in Iraq, and would continue even if Iraq were split into separate states. For every state where ethnic groups quarrel, there are states where they coexist peacefully. Partition cannot fix problems caused by unbalanced state institutions and leaders who exploit sectarian divisions. Only the establishment of responsible governance and the cessation of sectarian nationalism will solve this crisis.



  1. I learned something. Applying these thoughts lo our own country, I understand now why Donald Trump’s espouses the racist rhetoric he does – it works and wins him votes. I understand too why we should never go down that road, either as a country or just allowing it as campaign rhetoric. It is dangerous to the integrity of a nation in that it creates divisions and competition amongst those divisions versus national unity..


  2. I have often thought that partitioning is the way to solve the Middle East’s issues but I now understand why that is not an effective strategy. Thank you for that. But that still leaves me wondering how on earth do you establish responsible governance when the populations have no experience with it and have no models (in their judgment) of it?


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