A Plan to Hold Iraq Together

This Op-Ed originally ran in the Washington Post on August 24, 2006

By Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Four months ago, in an opinion piece with Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, I laid out a detailed plan to keep Iraq together, protect America's interests and bring our troops home. Many experts here and in Iraq embraced our ideas. Since then, circumstances in Iraq have made the plan even more on target -- and urgent -- than when we first proposed it.

The new, central reality in Iraq is that violence between Shiites and Sunnis has surpassed the insurgency and foreign terrorists as the main security threat. Our leading civilian and military experts on Iraq -- Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gens. George Casey, Peter Pace and John Abizaid -- have all acknowledged that fact.

In December's elections, 90 percent of the votes went to sectarian lists. Ethnic militias increasingly are the law in Iraq. They have infiltrated the official security forces. Sectarian cleansing has begun in mixed areas, with 200,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes in recent months for fear of sectarian reprisals. Massive unemployment feeds the ranks of sectarian militias and criminal gangs.

No number of troops can solve this problem. The only way to hold Iraq together and create the conditions for our armed forces to responsibly withdraw is to give Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds incentives to pursue their interests peacefully and to forge a sustainable political settlement. Unfortunately, this administration does not have a coherent plan or any discernible strategy for success in Iraq. Its strategy is to prevent defeat and hand the problem off when it leaves office.

Meanwhile, more and more Americans, understandably frustrated, support an immediate withdrawal, even at the risk of trading a dictator for chaos and a civil war that could become a regional war.

Both are bad alternatives. The five-point plan Les Gelb and I laid out offers a better way.

First, the plan calls for maintaining a unified Iraq by decentralizing it and giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis their own regions. The central government would be left in charge of common interests, such as border security and the distribution of oil revenue.

Second, it would bind the Sunnis to the deal by guaranteeing them a proportionate share of oil revenue. Each group would have an incentive to maximize oil production, making oil the glue that binds the country together.

Third, the plan would create a massive jobs program while increasing reconstruction aid -- especially from the oil-rich Gulf states -- but tying it to the protection of minority rights.

Fourth, it would convene an international conference that would produce a regional nonaggression pact and create a Contact Group to enforce regional commitments.

Fifth, it would begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces this year and withdraw most of them by the end of 2007, while maintaining a small follow-on force to keep the neighbors honest and to strike any concentration of terrorists.

This plan is consistent with Iraq's constitution, which already provides for the country's 18 provinces to join together in regions, with their own security forces and control over most day-to-day issues. This plan is the only idea on the table for dealing with the militias, which are likely to retreat to their respective regions instead of engaging in acts of violence. This plan is consistent with a strong central government that has clearly defined responsibilities. Indeed, it provides an agenda for that government, whose mere existence will not end sectarian violence. This plan is not partition -- in fact, it may be the only way to prevent violent partition and preserve a unified Iraq.

To be sure, this plan presents real challenges, especially with regard to large cities with mixed populations. We would maintain Baghdad as a federal city, belonging to no one region. And we would require international peacekeepers for other mixed cities to support local security forces and further protect minorities. The example of Bosnia is illustrative, if not totally analogous. Ten years ago, Bosnia was being torn apart by ethnic cleansing. The United States stepped in decisively with the Dayton Accords to keep the country whole by, paradoxically, dividing it into ethnic federations. We even allowed Muslims, Croats and Serbs to retain separate armies. With the help of U.S. troops and others, Bosnians have lived a decade in peace. Now they are strengthening their central government and disbanding their separate armies.

At best, the course we're on has no end in sight. At worst, it leads to a terrible civil war and possibly a regional war. This plan offers a way to bring our troops home, protect our security interests and preserve Iraq as a unified country. Those who reject this plan out of hand must answer one simple question: What is your alternative?

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