Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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Archive for the ‘Shiite sectarian federalism’ Category

Iraqi Shiites Debate Federalism Again

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 3 July 2011 18:33

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.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general, Oil in Iraq, Shiite sectarian federalism | 19 Comments »

Shiastan Strategist Criticises Maliki-Allawi Rapprochement; His Boss Meets with Hill

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 11 July 2010 20:14

Predictably, the signs of increasing dialogue between Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi and State of Law (SLA) led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are met with alarm not only by the Kurds, but also by the Iraqi National Alliance, the more sectarian Shiite group of parties that received 70 seats in the new parliament.

The latest contribution to this chorus is from Basim al-Awwadi, a political adviser to Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). In a statement to the press, Awwadi suggests that SLA and Iraqiyya cannot cooperate because their political programmes are incompatible and “180 degrees from each other”.

Clearly, Awwadi is not a supporter of the “180 solution” ! Also, he is not very good at analysing political programmes. The fact is that SLA and Iraqiyya agree on a number of salient issues in Iraqi politics, including the importance of a strong centralised state including a powerful oil ministry, respecting Islam but without giving clerics too much power (unlike Awwadi’s own INA, State of Law does not have adherence to the diktats of the Shiite priests as part of its official programme), boosting Iraqi oil production (even in a situation where Iran may not like this because prices may go down), and not ceding the mixed city of Kirkuk to the Kurds. In fact there is greater agreement on these issues between Iraqiyya and SLA than there is internally within INA (where at least some Sadrists are more centralist and anti-Kurdish than the rest).

But there is also some more interesting background to this. Awwadi, who has become more prominent as a Hakim adviser lately, used to be a strong advocate not only of the idea of a Shiite federal entity stretching from Baghdad to Basra, but indeed for full Shiite independence. In articles written back in 2004 and 2005 and published on websites such as that of the “Committee for the Independence of the Shiites of Iraq” (on which more here), Awwadi claimed that “the Shiites of Iraq are a separate nation, totally distinct from the others”. He advocated emulating the Kurdish strategy of independence, aiming for the liberation from the rest of Iraq of the territory in the triangle between Fao, Samarra and Kirkuk/Diyala. He strongly criticised the Allawi government and suggested the Shiites do more to get on par with Sunnis and Kurds with respect to military capability.

Little wonder, then, that Awwadi is critical to an alliance between SLA and Iraqiyya that could once more push his beloved sectarian identities slightly to the background. Meanwhile, however, his primitive kind of thinking still appears to command some interest in American circles, not least as far as Ambassador Chris Hill is concerned. He made sure to follow in the footsteps of Joe Biden and UNAMI representative Ad Melkert to make his nth meeting with Awwadi’s boss, Ammar al-Hakim, over the weekend. Characteristically, the ISCI communiqué from the meeting said the meeting resulted in “reassurances… that a government would be formed of all the political forces of all the factions of the Iraqi community”. In fact, that sounds very 2004, but some players apparently still want to keep the idea of a “factionalised” Iraqi society on the agenda…

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | 3 Comments »

Hakim Still Dreaming about Regions

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 8 October 2009 13:34

He has lived in the country less than half of his life but the 37-year old Ammar al-Hakim, the new leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), continues to spend time contemplating radical changes to the state structure of Iraq. In a recent interview with Iraqi television, he made it clear that he still envisages the creation of multiple federal regions in Iraq south of Kurdistan.

In the period between 2005 and 2007 Hakim was perhaps the single most vocal spokesperson for the idea of a single, Shiite sectarian region to be established from south of Baghdad to the Gulf. While he no longer pushes that particular configuration of governorates to form a new region, the recent interview makes it clear once more that he has no qualms about future changes to Iraq’s administrative map: One governorate, three governorates or nine governorates in a single federal region, that is for the people to decide, says Hakim. Iraq may perhaps be the cradle of civilisation with a millennia-long tradition of centralised government but to Hakim this historical legacy simply seems irrelevant.

While legalists will point out that Hakim is finally moving closer to the 2005 constitution, a more meaningful interpretation of the significance of his statement emerges when it is contrasted with what other Iraqi politicians are saying these days. Just within the past weeks, representatives for the Daawa party (Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani), Iraqiyya (Maysun al-Damluji), Hiwar (Mustafa al-Hiti) and the Sadrists (Talib al-Kurayti) have all expressed scepticism to the creation of any new federal entities. Several have hinted that restrictions on federalism may be a subject for the upcoming constitutional review. In other words, when most Iraqi politicians finally seem to respond to recurrent popular demands for an end to federalisation and a greater focus on more pressing issues of security, health and the economy, Hakim makes a point of keeping such options open.

This in turn highlights potential contradictions inside the newly created Iraqi National Alliance, where Hakim is playing a key role. In a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor that has been widely reproduced in the Iraqi press, another leading ISCI figure, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, weighed in on the issue of state structure. Although some of the translations of the interview have clearly been garbled in the Iraqi press, the one by the Furat television channel based on an ISCI press release is probably an authoritative account of what Abd al-Mahdi intended to say. Put briefly, in his view, the goal of the new coalition is to create a unified government without ideological contradictions: “It is impossible to have a centralist view within a government that believes in decentralisation”.

Seen in isolation, this is clarifying: The Iraqi National Alliance confirms its decentralisation ideology and emphasises its differences with others in the Maliki government, such as the premier himself, on the issue. Alas, the problem, of course, is the presence of certain arch-centralists – in particular the Sadrists – as a key element in the new Shiite-led alliance. Clearly, if Abd al-Mahdi were to follow through on his own logic, the obvious next steps would be as follows: Firstly, to cut all contact with the centralist Iraqiyya (with whom negotiations supposedly still go on). Secondly and, more importantly perhaps, to ditch the Sadrists, who also reject the creation of more federal entities.

But they are not going to do that, are they? After all, the Sadrist votes for the Iraqi National Alliance are badly needed. For his part, Ammar al-Hakim has already declared that he will not subject himself to the unpredictable whims of voters by running as a candidate. And whereas ISCI earned one third of its members of parliament in 2005 not on the basis of actual votes for candidates but in post-election distribution of so-called compensatory seats at the national level, the Sadrists are holding a kind of primaries these days, with a reported turnout of 16,000 in Dhi Qar. The Sadrists, in turn, are under instructions from Muqtada al-Sadr to select only non-clerical independents, making it even less likely that ISCI would benefit from the Sadrist vote under an open-list system.

This illustrates a more widespread dynamic related to the ongoing debate on the elections law. In public, all the parties except the two Kurdish ones agree that an open-list system should be used. ISCI supported closed lists in the past but has been pressured into accepting an open-list system after persons close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani increasingly have expressed a strong preference for this. (In fact, for this reason Sistani is almost portrayed as something of a nationalist hero on normally unsympathetic television stations like Sharqiyya these days, so don’t say Iraqi politics isn’t changing!) In theory, then, the only remaining problem with the elections law should be what to do with Kirkuk, and even here a compromise should be possible after a very helpful proposal two days ago by Hasan Turan, a Turkmen representative, to make provisions for a re-examination of the voter register for that province – an idea that received public support yesterday also from Usama al-Nujayfi, another powerful voice from the north.

However, it is reported that several parties are unsecure about their real standing among voters and secretly prefer the closed-list system for that reason. The motive is that with a closed list the big vote-getters (such as the Sadrists) can enhance their electoral prospects by creating a “ticket” in a very literal sense – i.e. by giving others, less popular politicians, a free ride to parliamentary seats that would otherwise be at risk (that is, if voters were given a chance to intervene in the selection of candidates). As if to underline the lack of respect for Iraqi voters, with all these issues pending, the parliament has announced it will not reconvene until 13 October, only two days before the deadline for completing changes to the electoral system.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | 9 Comments »

Ahmad al-Sulayti, or, Maliki’s Basra Problem

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 September 2009 12:17

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

The standardised Western narrative on Basra political developments over the past two years is as simple as it is deceptive: For a while, the people of Basra were terrorised by militia rule directed mainly by two “extremist” and “milita-affiliated” groups – Sadrists and the ruling Fadila party – but this sorry state of affairs came to an end in March 2008 by the heroic intervention of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,  variously celebrated as the “legalist”, the “secularist” and the “hater of the Iranians” depending on the writer’s closeness to the Bush administration. The militias disappeared, “the rule of law” was restored in Basra, and Maliki was rewarded by the Basrawis last January with a resounding win in the local elections.

The reality in Basra these days is somewhat different. Since the assumption of power by the new local government last April, reports of increasing Islamisation of Basra’s public sphere have intensified. Growing pressures towards Islamic dress code in public-sector workplaces have been reported, along with increased attempts at gender segregation in public spaces like parks and university areas. In August came a formal ban on the sale of alcohol.

Some of these moves have been championed by the very “secularist” list that Maliki’s alliance was supposed to represent, with the new governor Shaltagh Abbud in the lead. However, by far the greatest enthusiast for imposing strict Islamic order in Basra society – in fact, his zeal is such that other council members have had to restrain him lately – is from neither the Daawa nor the Sadrist camp. Rather, Shaykh Ahmad al-Sulayti is a leading figure of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and a preacher in Zubayr, traditionally a Sunni stronghold but since the 1960s increasingly populated by Shiites. He has been at the forefront of several of the recent legislative initiatives aimed at enhancing the observation of Islamic codes of conduct in Basra. Like many other Shiite activists he refers to the elusive “marjaiyya” as his source of authority; at his website this is operationalised with links to the “four great” top ulama of Iraq – the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the three other leading traditionalists of Najaf.

Basra may be in the middle of a water supply crisis but Sulayti’s current preoccupation is that he wants Basra’s men to grow their beards – to let the beard flow freely, as the Arabs say – a matter in which he is indeed supported by Sistani fatwas. It should be stressed that the way he has gone about this business in itself seems quite innocuous: Last week he introduced a law that would prevent public officials from directing employees to shave their beards, referring to the principle of individual freedom. But if his strategy thus seemed somewhat indirect (and not really different from, say, campaigns by Muslims in Europe for the right to wear the hijab at work), it was considered to go too far by the rest of the council (which had previously approved the ban on alcohol) and was cancelled a few days ago after having first been adopted.

Sulayti’s priorities reflect an interesting focus on rituals and dress code as the key to creating Islamic spaces, not entirely different from Sunni Islamist tendencies, but previously often thought to be the preserve of “radical Sadrists” as far as the Iraqi Shiite scene was considered. And whereas the Daawa-led coalition in Basra right now appears to be in a position to resist pressures from clerics like Sulayti, it is surprising how far in the direction of Islamisation they have ventured already, their rock-solid majority in the local council notwithstanding. More than anything the Basra developments speak volumes about the pressures that Maliki is facing from elements in the Shiite Islamist camp often considered “moderates” by the outside world, and hence the need for him to think carefully through the constellation of his political alliances in the next parliamentary elections. (Not that the Basra regionalism trend is going away either – a Basra member of his list, Mahmud al-Maksusi, recently reminded Iraqi parliamentarians about their promise to give Basra special status as Iraq’s “economic capital”.)

The situation in Basra has wider ramifications that are as fascinating as they are potentially explosive. At some point, members of the Iraqi public with an interest in Islamic law are likely to ask themselves why, given the theoretical oneness of Islamic law, is it legal to sell alcohol in Baghdad and not in Basra? More likely, they will not stop by asking themselves, but may well want to pose the question to other authorities that are supposed to be in the know about these issues, like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or the Federal Supreme Court, or, worse, perhaps both of them at the same time. Even more critically, some may want to know why the ban is not being implemented in the streets of Arbil and other parts of the Kurdistan Region, which just like the rest of the Iraq is subject to the constitutional imperative that no legislation may contradict the fundamentals of Islam. In this battle between Islamic law and secularism lies the conflict that could one day topple the project of Iraq as an Islamic federation, as set out in everything but the name in the 2005 constitution. And if the issue is not raised by the Iraqi public itself, it will under any circumstances force its way onto the agenda once the law on the composition of a new federal supreme court – promised in 2005 but considered a too sensitive subject until now – is to be debated in the Iraqi parliament.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

Baghdad, District of the Green Zone??

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 8 January 2009 23:59

The debate about Iraq’s state structure rarely fails to make perplexing twists and turns, and the latest discussion concerning the status of Baghdad as Iraq’s capital city is no exception. In a scheme reported by several Arabic news media, local politicians in the Baghdad governorate council have presented the vision of the Green Zone as the future federal capital of Iraq – on pattern of the special status that Washington, D.C. has in the US system of government, with the rest of the governorate presumably acquiring a “normal” status (and with small chunks of neighbouring city quarters being annexed).

One would perhaps have thought that this kind of scheme could have originated with ISCI, the only party among the Shiites that has spoken out in defence of sectarian models of federalism, because theoretically it might then become easier for any future Shiite federal region to eat into parts of Baghdad. ISCI members have distinguished themselves in the Iraqi federalism debate earlier also by highlighting the option of federalising Baghdad as a standalone unit (it is constitutionally barred from becoming part of any other region under the current system). And, indeed, ISCI’s provincial council head in Baghdad, Mu‘in al-Kazimi, has been among the foremost promoters of these new ideas.

More surprising, however, is it to find Daawa member Salah Abd al-Razzaq speaking positively about this kind of project. Only months ago, he was in the media spotlight as the Daawa decided to contest the forthcoming 31 January local elections on a separate list from ISCI, not least because of disagreement between the now more centralist Daawa and the strongly pro-federal ISCI. Back then, many “centralist” independents in the United Iraqi Alliance camp that are believed to be in regular touch with Sistani, such as Husayn al-Shahristani and Safa al-Din al-Safi, chose Maliki’s side rather than Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s. But now also Abd al-Razzaq from Maliki’s group has signalled interest in the “federal district” plan.

It is hard to see how the scheme fits with the 2005 constitution, where even in a general tendency of extreme concessions to the centrifugal forces in Iraq at least the concept of an undivided capital seems to survive. Baghdad “with its municipal borders” is the capital of the Republic of Iraq “and shall make up the governorate of Baghdad”. One can understand the dilemma of local councillors who feel that urban development may not receive the attention it requires when the governorate of Baghdad is also tasked with matters relating to the infrastructure of the federal government, but Baghdad has such a symbolic position as the nation’s capital that any tinkering with its status is likely to meet with considerable scepticism among the Iraqi public at large. An initial challenge would be to find a reasonable name for the new creation.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | Comments Off

Hakim’s Insincerity on the Local Elections

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 11 September 2008 0:00

In a strange series of comments given to the Iraqi news agency Aswat al-Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim highlights the importance of holding early provincial elections and seems to forget that his own party, ISCI, has been at the forefront of attempts to derail those elections. First, back in February, ISCI along with the Kurds fiercely resisted the insertion of a timeline for elections into the provincial powers law. Subsequently, after having been defeated by a parliamentary majority on the issue, ISCI tried to use the presidential veto to avoid elections. More recently, ISCI has continued to complicate the parliamentary deliberations on the elections law itself through continuing to demand the right to use religious symbols for campaigning purposes. In a remarkable statement in the most recent interview, Hakim refers to the “timeline for elections laid down by the Iraqi constitution” – surely he must know that there is no timeline for local elections in the constitution.

Perhaps sensing a degree of pressure from the higher Shiite clergy, Hakim now tries to present ISCI as an advocate of early elections – unsurprisingly, he now blames the very parties that demanded elections in the first place for trying to obstruct them! This refers to the demand by a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians that pending elections in Kirkuk, and as part of the elections law, there should be some kind of shake-up in the local administration there in the direction of greater power-sharing between the various communities. This demand reflects a widespread desire among Iraqi parliamentarians to challenge the hegemony of ISCI, the Kurds and Maliki in dominating Iraq’s politics – a hegemony which came under threat when the provincial powers law with the timeline for elections was adopted back in February, but which has since been restored through heavy-handed action (often with US support) against political enemies of all shades, in many cases on the pretext of vaguely defined “security” concerns that have yet to result in formal charges against those targeted in the operations.

In the interview, Hakim is less bullish than ever before on the idea of forming a big Shiite region. This time, he merely refers to the constitutional provisions on the subject, which leave the issue to popular grassroots initiatives.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism, UIA dynamics | Comments Off

Debating Devolution in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 10 March 2008 16:58

In early August 2007, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, made headlines with striking comments to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. The cleric revealed in an interview with Sam Dagher that “a massive operation” was underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be named the “South of Baghdad Region,” and projected to encompass all nine majority-Shi‘i governorates south of the Iraqi capital. Saghir claimed that his party had already drafted detailed plans for how such a super-province would be governed — plans of such importance to Iraq and the region that there was “no room for misadventures”… Full story here.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraqi constitutional issues, Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

Suffering, Oil, and Ideals of Coexistence: Non-Sectarian Federal Trends in the Far South of Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 13 December 2007 20:22

Among the numerous fallacies that have become widespread in analyses of today’s Iraq is the notion that the Shiites of the country are unified in demanding the establishment of a sectarian federal entity, a Shiite super-state. And even though some studies at least acknowledge the internal Shiite division between anti-federal Iraqi nationalist and supporters of federalism, few bother to examine important sub-divisions inside the pro-federal camp. In many accounts there simply is only one Shiite federal vision of the future: iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub (the Region of the Center and the South), covering all the nine Shiite-majority governorates to the south of the Iraqi capital. Full story here.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

The Supreme Council Marks Fourth Anniversary of Baqir al-Hakim’s Assassination: No Mention of Federalism

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 17 July 2007 23:59

Every year since 2004, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (hereafter the Supreme Council*) has marked the anniversary of the 29 August 2003 assassination of its former leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, in accordance with the Islamic calendar. This year, the 2 Rajab commemoration fell on 17 July. In 2005 and 2006 these celebrations were turned into propaganda events for the novel idea of a single federal Shiite entity extending from Baghdad to Basra… Full story here.

Posted in Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

SCIRI More Flexible on Federalism, but Fails to Resolve Khamenei Ambiguity

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 12 May 2007 16:07

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) held its general meeting in Baghdad on 10 and 11 May 2007. The 49-point press release from the conference is noteworthy for at least two reasons. Firstly, the document represents a notable softening of tone on the question of federalism in Iraq… Full story here.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Shiite sectarian federalism | Comments Off

 
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