Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, says that Iraq should split into three countries, one for each of the ethnic groups in the region: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.
The senior diplomatic fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the country has already broken up in partitions along these lines and the U.S. should not be in the business of putting it back together.
Galbraith says the ethnic factions have started taking on distinct roles in Iraq. "We have, in the north Kurdistan, which is, in all regards, an independent country, with its own army and its own government. And now between the Shiites and the Sunnis there are two separate armies — there's a Shiite army — it's the Iraqi army, but it's dominated by the Shiites — and in the Sunni areas there's now the Awakening — a 100,000-man strong militia. And it is because of the Awakening, and not so much the surge of U.S. troops, that there's been this decline in attacks by al-Qaida."
Galbraith says that the Sunni Awakening still remains very hostile to the Iraqi government, and the government sees the Awakening as a bigger threat than al-Qaida.
The incoming Obama administration will bring Vice President-elect Joe Biden into the fray, which Galbraith calls "very encouraging."
Biden "has been the prime proponent of a decentralized Iraq, and although in the campaign Sen. McCain described [Biden's] plan as a 'cockamamie' idea," Galbraith says, "it is in fact what the Bush administration has done."
In 2007, the Bush administration financed a Sunni army — the Awakening — and Galbraith says this is responsible for the success so far in Iraq. Biden would take this to the next step and encourage the Sunnis to form their own region, which would control that army, just as the Kurdistan region controls the Peshmerga, or the Kurdistan army, Galbraith says.
A decentralized, loosely federalized partitioned Iraq might eventually be capable of defending its own interests against its larger neighbors of Iran and Turkey, but right now, Galbraith says, that's not happening.
"Iraq is not, today, defending its interests," he says. "The Iranians wield enormous influence because the United States actually paved the way for Iran's allies to become the government of Iraq."
"With regard to the Kurds, actually there's been a change in attitude on the part of Turkey," Galbraith says. "There was a time when they thought the idea of an independent Kurdistan was an almost existential threat to Turkey. But increasingly, Turks recognize, first, that this is an accomplished fact — it's already happened; and second, that there are opportunities — after all, they share in common that they're secular, they're pro-Western, and, like the Turks, they aspire to be democratic and they're not Arabs."
Galbraith says there are two things the U.S. can do to enhance stability in Iraq as it leaves.
"First, try and solve the territorial dispute over Kirkuk and other disputed areas between the Kurds and the Arabs. Secondly, to work out a modus vivendi between the Iraqi government and the Shiite-led army and the Sunni Awakening as to who will control what territory," he says.
"If we can minimize the kinds of things that Sunnis and Shiites are going to fight over, it may be, over time, that they will find it in their interests to have much greater cooperation and that voluntarily they'll build a stronger Iraqi state," Galbraith says. "I think it's unlikely the Kurds would ever join that, but I think it's quite possible between the Sunnis and Shiites."