Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi’s recent outburst about potential Sunni separatism has had the side effect of a limited resurgence of discussion of federalism among Iraq’s Shiite Islamist factions.
So far, the contributions to this reawakened debate follow patterns that are familiar to those who followed the previous discussion about federalism south of Baghdad in the 2005–2007 period: The Shiite Islamists remain divided on federalism, with many signalling only limited interest in the concept as such, and most players being explicitly opposed to the idea of a single Shiite region that was propagated by ISCI and the Hakim family from 2005 onwards. Only some Kurds keep calling for a tripartite Iraq made up by ethnic and sectarian regions.
A typical example are recent statements by Shakir al-Darraji, from the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. While correctly conceding that the creation of new federal regions are the prerogative of popular initiatives in the governorates, Darraji warns against any new regions at the current stage given the security situation and the heated political atmosphere. Specifically, he warns against a single Shiite region: Such a region would not be in the interest of the Sunnis and Kurds, Darraji says, before adding that the considerations of Iraq’s interest as a whole should be given due weight in any renewed federalism discussion. Symptomatically perhaps, in his interview, Darraji also gave an erroneous account of the legal framework for forming new regions: By saying that any three governorates have the constitutional right to form a new region he reiterated the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law from 2004 rather than those of the new constitution in 2005 (which allows for any combination of governorates into federal regions, excepting Baghdad, as well as uni-governorate federal regions.)
For his part, Muqtada al-Sadr has commented on the recent threat by Usama al-Nujayfi by challenging the inhabitants of these regions to prove their interest in federalism in a referendum. He added that he was against any kind of federalism that would lead to partition… Also, to the extent that there are departures from this general trend, they relate to Basra – as they always did in the past. In a recent statement Jawad al-Bazuni, a young deputy from Basra affiliated with Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) exhibits this tendency. Echoing pro-federal tendencies in evidence among State of Law deputies who captured the governorate council in Basra in January 2009, Buzuni says the creation of multiple federal regions would be the best solution in Iraq in the context of enduring political tension. Buzuni also highlights the Kurdish experience as a successful case of federalism.
Perhaps the greatest surprise in all of this has come from a “Sunni source” – Nujayfi himself. In media comments subsequent to the latest controversy about his statements, Nujayfi revealed that in addition to the petition by the Basra governorate council for a federalism referendum that was submitted in the second half of 2010 (but has so far remained unaddressed by the government in Baghdad in violation of the law on implementing federalism), a similar petition from the governorate council in Wasit, signed by 16 out of 28 council members, was submitted some 2 months ago. This is interesting because Wasit has not figured prominently in past discussions of federalism among Iraqi Shiites. The existence of an oilfield operated by a Chinese company in the governorate adds to the complexity of centre–periphery relations in this case, as does the fact that the State of Law alliance is severely divided there, with a recent split between the Shahristani and the Maliki blocs (the Shahristani supporters have joined independents and the Iraqi Constitutional Party). The exact political configuration behind the latest pro-federal move remains unclear, but an ISCI politician played a key role in making the first moves in 2010.