WASHINGTON—Sen. Sam Brownback says there's only one sure way to bring peace to Iraq: Divide the country into three states and separate the warring factions.
With Congress and the White House at loggerheads over a proposed timetable to end the war, the Kansas Republican is part of an unlikely Senate duo that's promoting the plan to partition Iraq. Brownback and Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, both candidates for president in 2008, say it would give breathing room for Sunni Muslim Arab, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish leaders.
"I do not agree with setting a timetable for pulling out of Iraq," Brownback, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. "The day we pass that is the day al-Qaida declares victory. ... This three-state, one-country solution is your only viable political solution."
At the first nationally televised debate for 2008 Republican presidential candidates, on Thursday night, Brownback touted the plan when he was asked whether he'd differ in any way from President Bush on the Iraq war. Some political analysts say it could be a risky move for Brownback, who might lose favor with conservatives by bucking the president.
The Bush administration, which is aiming to unite Iraq under one strong federal government, dismisses the plan. But it's winning attention on Capitol Hill, since it's coming from two senators at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both with serious foreign-policy credentials.
Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the plan would allow the three states to make decisions involving "their local police, their education, their religion and marriage—the very things they're fighting over." He said the Iraqi federal government would be responsible for common interests such as securing the borders and distributing oil revenues.
Opponents contend that political solutions can't be imposed on the Iraqis.
"It's awfully hard for us, and frankly maybe slightly arrogant of us, to try to decide what politically will work for that country," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Congress had to return to the drawing board last week after Bush vetoed a war-spending bill that would have forced him to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by Oct. 1.
Brownback said the stalemate gave Democrats and Republicans a chance to come together to end the four-year-old war. And he said the United States couldn't sustain the war with one-party support.
"There's a chance for both sides to show statesmanship on this," he said.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who's advised the Kurds, is among the most enthusiastic backers of the plan. Galbraith, who's written a book on the subject, argues that most Iraqis don't want civil war but have rejected the idea of a unified Iraq. He said Iraq's new constitution would allow the country's three main groups to establish their own regions, each with its own government, army and control over oil resources.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about the partitioning plan recently, she noted that Iraqis aren't advocating such a structure.
"I don't think it is practical, particularly along ethno-sectarian lines, to divide Iraq up and give authority based on your sectarian identification, to say there's a Shia part of the country, a Sunni part of the country, a Kurdish part of the country," Rice told RealClear Politics. "Baghdad is a completely mixed city. What becomes of Baghdad? ... If you try to do this, I think you're going to have an explosion."
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said the Republican presidential candidates would have difficulty separating themselves from Bush.
"What these Republican candidates are going to find out, to their dismay, is that the eventual nominee will carry the burden of the Bush administration and the Iraq war regardless of his position. It makes no difference," he said. "That's how Americans assess responsibility; they do it by party. So he (Brownback) can come up with 47 alternative plans, but he is going to have to defend the Bush administration's Iraq policy, and it may or may not be defensible by November of `08. Maybe things will be better or maybe they'll be worse."
Moreover, Sabato said, the candidates run the risk of angering the Republican base.
"Bush himself—and his Iraq policy—still gets about a third of the American public support, and that third is almost entirely Republican—and activist Republican," he said. "They're the people who vote. So they're stuck. They have to stick with Bush but leave enough daylight so that if somehow they get the nomination they'll have a prayer of winning in November."