The surprise decision by the Iraqi government last week to announce plans for altogether four new provinces has been met with mostly predictable reactions among Iraqi politicians. Kurds are angry; as are Sunni Arabs and particularly those of Nineveh who will get most directly affected by the central government’s plans to parcel out some of their territory to create new governorates. Conversely, there has been jubilation in some of the minority communities affected by the plans (Turkmens, Shabak, Christians). Few know what the people of Falluja – the last area to become a projected province – may think about the plans. Their problems are of a more immediate nature, with dramatic estimates of the number of refugees having left the city because of the recent flare-up in the conflict between the Iraqi government and sympathizers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
At first it was tempting to assume that the reason behind the sudden declaration of new provinces related to the upcoming 30 April parliamentary elections, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki possibly trying to win votes among Shiite minorities (and Christians) outside the Shiite majority areas. However, interestingly, a more elaborate justification for the scheme has now been presented, suggesting there could be an attempt at grander strategic thinking behind the initiative after all. Tareq Harb, a close legal adviser to Maliki, has maintained that the move is aimed at pre-empting the creation of more federal regions and the potential split-up of Iraq. According to Harb, by weakening large governorates like Basra and Nineveh, the prospect of them turning into federal regions lessens since the tiny rump governorate in each case would be “a joke” of a federal region. Among the potential new governorates enumerated by Harb are Rawa (Anbar), Balad and Dujayl (Salahaddin, both with Shiite populations) and Qurna (Basra).
Meanwhile, the legal framework concerning the creation of such new governorates remains unclear. It has not helped matters that the minister of state for the governorates, Torhan Mufti (himself a Turkmen) has declared that the provincial powers law of 2008 does give the central government a right to change provincial boundaries. The same claim has been reiterated by a member of the parliament committee for the governorates, but neither claim has been buttressed with a reference to a specific article of the provincial powers law. It would be helpful if they (or anyone else who knows) could do so. A cursory reading of the amended law of 2008 indicates a right of governorates to change their internal boundaries (sub-provinces) in article 7-11, but where is the alleged corresponding right of parliament to change provincial boundaries?
One would have thought the US government, which was influential in Iraq at the time the provinces law was adopted in 2008, had analysed this problem. However, whereas an annotated version of the provincial powers law by USAID sounds promising, it fails to produce the required clarity. It seems to agree that there is no power for anyone to change provincial boundaries in the provinces law itself; however it does refer to the 1969 law on provincial administration as an alleged basis for parliament to change borders. There are several problems here. Footnote 32 of the American reports refers to “a power of parliament to change provincial boundaries” in law 159 of 1969. However, article 4 of the 1969 law does not mention parliament at all: Instead, it refers to the revolutionary command council. Even more importantly, as the American report itself goes on to mention, the 2008 law abrogated the 1969 law and hence took away any specific framework that may have existed in that piece of legislation for the central government to create new administrative entities.
Few believe these latest decisions will create changes on the ground in the near future. However, there is a qualitative shift in the Iraqi debate when the redrawing of provincial boundaries becomes part of the political horse trading process. Heretofore, provincial grievances have mostly been contained in the budgetary process, with a certain inflation of petrodollars and other dollars (including compensation for border provinces and provinces with pilgrimage traffic). But whereas money can be easily negotiated, the mere discussion of borders threatens to create precedents and goals that can be difficult to contain once they have been ignited. For example, the schemes for provinces in the Nineveh plains and Turkmen areas dovetail with far more ambitious schemes among Christian and Turkmen politicians to create federal regions in their own right. Another problem relates to scale. If areas the size of Falluja can have their own governorate, one would expect a degree of symmetry in the shape of a multiplication of other similarly small-scaled new governorates. Whereas the existence of micro-minorities like Turkmen, Christians and Shabak may conceivably be used as an argument for administrative separateness (advocates of their scheme refer to article 125 of the Iraqi constitution), no such argument is present in the case of Falluja. All in all, then, given the momentous implications of such vision, it seems doubly important that Iraqi politicians should be a lot clearer about the legal basis for the dramatic changes they now propose.