In breaking news this morning, the Iraqi parliament has approved a controversial law on federalism, allowing its provinces to merge into partially autonomous regions. The measure was passed unanimously, but with only a bare majority of MPs present.

Devolution has been on the agenda in Iraq for some time; a previous attempt last month to debate the plan led to rowdy scenes in parliament. It is likely that there will be further obstacles to overcome before the new law can be implemented.

But western attention is finally being focused on the unreality of treating Iraq as a unitary state. Last Sunday, The Times of London reported that the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former US secretary of state James Baker and charged with making recommendations on American policy in Iraq, is considering a scheme for “carving up Iraq into three highly autonomous regions”.

Baker has since denied that partition is a preferred option, but regional autonomy that amounts to a de facto partition now seems to be firmly on the table.

Commentators are already pointing to past failures of partition; Lebanon’s Daily Star says it “has usually visited little more than trauma on countries, accompanied by war.” But the point is that Iraq is already the result of partition: a badly-done element of the partition of the Ottoman empire after World War I.

Of course it would be good if partition was never necessary, but that’s just another way of saying it would be good it we could all live in a united world without boundaries. In reality we have to make do with second-best solutions. The remarkable thing is that the artificial construct of Iraq has survived as a single country for so long.

There’s little doubt boundaries that divide ethnic groups in arbitrary fashion do considerable damage. A recent study by the US national bureau of economic research looked at such divisions by the simple expedient of measuring how much of a country’s borders consisted of straight lines (thanks to Michael Warby for drawing my attention to this).

Their conclusion: straight lines are bad. Squiggly borders – more likely to reflect natural divisions – were “highly correlated with several measures of political and economic success.”