As Iraq Rends In Three, Can A New System Keep The Country Whole?

Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks about his proposal for a federal system in Iraq that recognizes the country's three distinct ethnic and religious communities. He explains to Robert Siegel why the proposal, which was written into Iraq's constitution, has been largely ignored and why partitioning the country fully into three sections will not be viable.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More than 10 years ago in a New York Times piece, Leslie Gelb wrote, for decades the United States has worshiped at the altar of a unified, yet unnatural Iraqi state. In its place, Gelb, a former Times Columnist and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed a three-state solution - Kurds the North, Shite Arabs in the South, Sunni Arabs in the center. Later Gelb and then Senator Joe Biden refined that proposal to a decentralized federal union of three regions - sharing proportionally in Iraq oil's wealth. Well, in view of current events in Iraq, Gelb has been talking and writing again about a federal solution for Iraq. And he joins us from New York. Les Gelb, thanks for joining us.

LESLIE GELB: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, what kind of support, if any, should the U.S. be giving a regime whose 350,000 military and security forces were either unable or unwilling to repel - what I gather - was a force of just a few thousand jihadis?

GELB: That's exactly what the White House is asking itself. They don't know what to do. And they're of course focusing on whether they have to work with Maliki, whether they can find some alternative to him and what the policy should be in guiding our moves from here on. And they haven't made up their mind.

SIEGEL: This is the prime minister, al-Maliki - is the idea of a stable, centrally governed, unitary state of Iraq a reasonable aim of U.S. policy?

GELB: I think it's important to try to keep Iraq whole because if we allow it to really splinter, to be completely partitioned, then we have a real problem with stability, economy and trouble throughout the Middle East.

SIEGEL: Did the U.S. see this coming, and do they see what's happening now?

GELB: Well, as you know, Robert, from all the people you've talked to over the last years, we've kind of turned our eyes away from Iraq. Everybody knew Maliki was the problem and that he wasn't doing anything about the political situation and that it was getting worse. But I don't know anyone who foresaw what you see now.

SIEGEL: So then, as you say, the problem facing the White House is - what kind of support do you give to the Iraqi government today? As you say, it's tough - it's a problem. What would you say if you were at the table and you were asked your opinion?

GELB: I would say let's try what Joe Biden and I argued four years ago and what is actually in the Iraqi constitution - namely a plan for a federal system. Now, I don't know whether it will work today but I think that's the only chance. Even though it's a long shot, it's the only chance of keeping Iraq together and providing some incentive for Sunnis to stay away from the jihadis and remain a part of the Iraqi state.

SIEGEL: Secretary of State Kerry today, when asked about whether there was some room for cooperation with Iran over events in Iraq, said that he wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive. Can you imagine some kind of U.S.-Iranian cooperation to achieve the end result that you have in mind?

GELB: I can imagine that because the Iranian leadership - these guys are pragmatic. So I think people are sufficiently desperate at this point - that if the Iranians are willing to play the kind of role they talk about, we would work with them.

SIEGEL: How would the U.S. be able to work together with Iran in Iraq while supporting, I gather, the end of the Assad regime in Syria, where that regime is backed by the same Iranians?

GELB: This is all interconnected. And the real enemy, as far as I'm concerned, in Syria are the jihadis as well. Now, Assad is a terrible dictator, but the immediate threat to us are from the jihadis, from the ISIS people, who are also threatening in Iraq. It's one strategic challenge to us.

SIEGEL: Well, Les Gelb, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

GELB: Robert, always a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Leslie Gelb, who is the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke to us from New York.

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