In order to crow about its accomplishments prior to the January 2009 elections, the Iraqi government is knocking down concrete security barriers and returning refugees to war-torn areas. Such moves may help the Iraqi government win votes by making the country seem to return to normalcy, but also increase the danger of a return to civil war.

In looking at past episodes of ethno-sectarian violence around the world, some important lessons have been learned. And Iraqi government actions are violating those principles. When ethno-sectarian groups are fighting, common sense should indicate that separating the warring factions should reduce the violence. In Iraq, much was made of the success of the surge of U.S. forces during late 2007 and 2008 in reducing the sectarian mayhem; but paying off the Sunnis not to fight the U.S. and sectarian separation from prior “ethnic cleansing” probably had greater effects. After all, the U.S. had similar troop levels in 2005, but sectarian violence raged at high levels.

For political reasons, the Iraqi government is now throwing over the separation principle by knocking down security barriers and returning refugees at a time when bombings are on the upswing and increasing uneasiness exists about the competence and neutrality of Iraqi security in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces from the cities. For example, during the sectarian civil war from 2005 to 2007, Sunnis “ethnically cleansed” from areas of Baghdad displaced Shi’i from their homes in the predominantly Sunni town of Abu Ghraib, which is west of Baghdad. The Shi’i-controlled Iraqi government is encouraging the displaced Shi’i—en masse for alleged safety—to return to Abu Ghraib. The government is also intervening to encourage the return of refugees to violence-wracked Diyala Province.

Even the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—which is usually far too reckless in its politically correct advocacy of rapid return of refugees in post-ethno-sectarian conflicts—maintains that the Iraqi government has no viable plan for returning 3.5 million people who were either displaced internally or to foreign countries by the sectarian strife. However, with Iraq’s deep ethno-sectarian cleavages still lying under the surface, almost any program of remixing the sectarian groups is likely to be dangerous—and most especially if large minorities of one sectarian group are returned to areas containing a majority of the other sect.

Previous episodes of ethno-sectarian conflict show that small minority populations usually don’t threaten the security of the majority but large minority populations do. In other words, for returning refugees, the cliché that there is “safety in numbers” is dead wrong.

The Iraqi government can now adopt these dangerous policies because, with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq’s cities, the Iraqi security forces are finally in charge there. Although it is wise—and long overdue—for the United States to let the Iraqis take control over their own country, the Sunnis don’t trust the increasingly sectarian Shi’i security forces to be neutral in resettling refugees.

Instead, the Iraqi government should wake up to the tremendous potential for a resumption of the ethno-sectarian civil war once American forces begin withdrawing from the country. The government should leave ethno-sectarian populations where they are and simply compensate displaced families for their loss. This action will be expensive but less so than a full-blown civil war. Moreover, as an even bigger step to avoiding such a conflagration, the Iraqi government should redraw its provincial map to recognize these ethno-sectarian (and tribal) enclaves and even devolve most governing power to them, especially in security and judicial matters. Local militia of the same ethno-sectarian group as the general population of a particular area could provide security in each province. Similarly, justice rendered by people of the same ethno-sectarian background would be perceived as being fairer.

Trying to recreate Iraq’s multicultural ethno-sectarian mosaic after intense civil strife is an appealing idea, but the history of ethno-sectarian conflict shows it to be dangerous. Instead, decentralized governance and the recognition and adjustment of the existing reality of ethno-sectarian partition provide the only way that fractious Iraq can survive in the long-term without U.S. forces to hold it together.