Iraq and Gulf Analysis

An Iraq Blog by a Victim of the Human Rights Crimes of the Norwegian Government

The Iraq Elections Commission Assigns Electoral Ticket Numbers

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 11:26

The Iraqi electoral commission (IHEC) today held a lottery for electoral ticket numbers for the upcoming 30 April parliamentary elections. Although a rough picture of the coalition-forming process has been in the public domain for some time, the information released today provides the first official confirmation of the electoral alliances that have been approved for participation in the election, following certification of individual entities towards the end of last year.

It should be noted that at the time of writing, the complete and official list of approved coalitions itself had not been published by IHEC, and that the following discussion is based on reports about the election list numbers as reported by the Iraqi press. However, the picture that emerges is consistent enough. Generally speaking, it is a story of fragmentation in all political camps. For example, the idea of a pan-Shiite list has hardly been on the agenda this year. Instead, all the major players run separately: Maliki’s State of Law (list 277), Hakim’s Muwatin (273), Sadr’s Ahrar (214), Fadila (219) and Jaafari’s Islah (205). A possible caveat concerns the Shiite-minority governorates (Salahaddin, Nineveh, Diyala). Lists sounding like variations of the Watani alliance of Shiites in parliament appear in all these places, and it could be pan-Shiite lists on the pattern seen in last year’s local elections. Confirmation of this must await release of the comprehensive IHEC coalition list, and possibly even the candidate lists themselves, expected in February/March.

Similarly, what was once the secular and increasingly Sunni-backed Iraqiyya has now fragmented into a number of factions. Parliament speaker Nujayfi’s Mutahhidun got list number 259; Allawi’s list now just called Wataniyya or “nationalism” got number 239; the Arab Iraqiyya bloc of deputy PM Mutlak got number 255.

With regard to the Kurds, the situation is slightly confused because both political entity numbers and coalition numbers have been published. Of these, there is little doubt that Goran and the Islamists will run separately, but the rationale for publishing the entity numbers for KDP and PUK alongside various coalition numbers is not clear. Again, it is possibly better to await publication of the candidate lists to see what sort of alliances the Kurds are running within the KRG and in Kurdish-populated areas outside the KRG respectively.

For the time being, the information available is too sketchy to make very firm conclusions about the overall direction of the upcoming elections. For example, candidate lists are needed to determine whether all Shiite parties are joining a common sectarian ticket in places like Salahaddin and Nineveh, or whether just a few take part. Instead, ongoing developments in the Iraqi parliamentary debate may perhaps provide some clues. Firstly, the recent announcements of new provinces in Nineveh and Salahaddin catering at least to some extent to Shiite Turkmen audiences could be a suggestion about a move towards a more sectarian electoral climate. On the other hand, attempts to create a parliamentary oversight committee to supervise the election commission itself have been spearheaded by Sadrists and Kurds, with Muwatin and State of Law resisting (and successfully defeating the motion). Whether the Hakim-Maliki relationship is still salvageable remains to be seen, but given the amount of fragmentation seen today it seems fairly clear that these elections are unlikely to produce a  clear single winner. We are thus left with a situation in which post-election coalition building and maneuvering may prove as important for the final outcome as the elections themselves.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014, Uncategorized | Comments Off

More on the New Iraqi Provinces: Election Stunt or a Strategic Vision of Local Government?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 27 January 2014 4:49

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.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 7 Comments »

The Iraqi Cabinet Decides to Form Three New Governorates

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 22 January 2014 1:44

The Iraqi cabinet made big headlines today with a shock decision to form three brand new provinces. Supposedly, there will be new governorates in Tuz Khormato (a Turkmen-dominated area currently in Salahaddin province), the Nineveh plains (a Christian-dominated part of Nineveh province) and Falluja (centre of the current Sunni-led uprising in Anbar province). With a recent decision to create Halabja as a separate governorate in Kurdistan, some observers declared that Iraq all of a sudden has 22 provinces, after decades of relative administrative stability in 18 governorates since the early 1970s.

It is not like the inhabitants of Falluja, Tuz and the Nineveh plains will feel any major changes related to administrative status when they wake up tomorrow. Some of the uncertainty regarding the new move of the Iraqi government can be glimpsed from the language of the cabinet decision itself: The agreement on the formation of these new decisions was made “in principle”, to be completed after the necessary formalities “had been completed”. Those formalities were not detailed: A special committee including members of the ministries of justice and municipalities will look into the “standards and procedures” necessary to complete the transformation.

This ambiguous choice of language in turn reflects wider legal uncertainties regarding any decision to form new provinces. In theory, despite the absence of any constitutional reference to administrative boundary changes, after 2003 such administrative changes were governed by a Baathist-era law, law no. 159 from 1969, which vested the power to change administrative boundaries in cabinet. However, the anachronistic nature of that procedure is attested to by a requirement that “the revolutionary council” approved the measure – an institution that Iraq now thankfully lacks. In any case, in 2008 a new provincial powers law specifically replaced the old provinces law (and repealed it), but it failed to make provision for new administrative boundary changes, meaning there is currently no detailed Iraqi legislation dealing with the subject of the creation of new provinces. That’s the ironic reality of the new Iraq: Whereas elaborate measures exist for the creation of new federal regions, no special provisions for the creation of new governorates exist.

Of course, the absence of a law does not necessarily mean decisions on these matters are off limits to the current Iraqi government. However, in a democracy there will be an expectation that such momentous decisions regarding the administrative structure of a country are governed by laws. Indeed, the recent Iraqi cabinet decision to transform Halabja in Kurdistan to a governorate was accompanied by comments to the effect that a law was expected to be sent to parliament for approval, the lack of relevant formal mechanisms notwithstanding. But whereas the submission to cabinet of a separate Halabja governorate project reflected longstanding internal Kurdish debate on the issue (and eventually a modicum of consensus), no such consensus is known to prevail regarding these three latest would-be provinces.

In sum, such is the uncertainty connected to today’s decision that it is tempting to view it as mainly empty rhetoric calculated to create happiness in particular political circles prior to Iraq’s 30 April parliamentary elections. The question then is what those interested political circles would be. In the case of Tuz and the Nineveh plains (Tall Kayf) one obvious answer would be minority groups in those areas that have long advocated autonomy – Turkmens and Christians respectively. Some view these projects as antidotes to Kurdish expansionism and potential annexation (either through article 140 on disputed territories or the Talabani project to change administrative boundaries back to pre-Baath conditions). It has therefore been suggested that the cabinet move today was an anti-Kurdish project, with Falluja thrown in as a new governorate simply in a rather strained attempt at mollifying Sunni Arab opinion. It would certainly look rather asymmetrical with a small Falluja governorate carved out from the vast Anbar – a hark back to the special administrative provinces seen in particularly ungovernable parts of the Ottoman Empire!

Since the early 1970s, Iraq has experienced relative stability in its administrative map with minor changes to the administrative boundaries of the 18 provinces. If actually granted governorate status, these new entities could soon apply for status as federal regions – something which the proponents of the Nineveh plains unit have long hinted at. It would open the path for similar demands from oil-rich districts in the south who have long felt marginalized within the governorates of which they currently form, including Zubayr and Qurna in Basra. If Falluja can be a governorate, why shouldn’t they claim the same status, with similar population numbers and vast energy resources?

Of course, the Maliki government is not known to be in favour of this kind of large-scale territorial fragmentation. Nonetheless, we now have yet another fictional act of state affecting centre-periphery relations in the new Iraq: The three projected new governorates come on top of a theoretical right for forming federal regions that is always rejected in practice, and a revised and very permissive law on provincial powers that  few think can work in practice.

For the time being, the Maliki government may feel safe that it can play with words in centre–periphery relations without having to face the consequences. In the long run, however, the increasing gap between rhetoric and practice – and between public expectations and the state’s capacity to deliver – may form a contributing factor to a more radical political climate in Iraq.

*Postscript: The changes above are contained in conclusion number 2 from the Iraqi cabinet meeting on 21 January. However, hidden away further down in conclusion number 4 is also mention of a law project to transform the largely Turkmen Tall Afar area of Nineveh to a governorate, and to send this law to parliament for approval. That does seem to indicate plans for altogether four new provinces. Tall Afar has apparently reached a more mature stage of progress towards governorate status. It is also clear that the Iraqi government believes it can send laws for changes of borders of individual governorates to parliament, quite without there being a more elaborate legal framework for such administrative changes in place. The cabinet can also probably rest assured that parliament is unlikely to approve these measures.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Uncategorized | Comments Off

44 Iraqi MPs Resign: Who Are They, and What Are the Consequences?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 31 December 2013 16:05

Following the recent political crisis in Iraq involving the arrest of a prominent Sunni MP from Anbar, 44 Iraqi MPs resigned yesterday in protest. Media seemed content to dwell on their numbers and their Sunni sectarian identity, but questions remain regarding their backgrounds, political affiliations and not least the consequences of their resignations.

Regarding the identities of the resigned MPs, the question can be resolved quite easily. Some media claimed that they all belonged to the bloc of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi, but that couldn’t be true since Nujayfi does not control that kind of number of deputies on his own. Thankfully, though, a website affiliated with his bloc has released the names of the resigned MPs. This makes it possible to collate their names with their political sub-entities within the secular-Sunni Iraqiyya coalition in the Iraqi parliament, as well as the governorates they represent.

It should be stressed that the list of resigned MPs is probably based on a statement of Zafir al-Ani as it was delivered, because it contains some obvious misspellings of names and makes it quite impossible to verify the identity of a handful of resigned deputies. Nonetheless, the patterns that do emerge are clear enough.








Islamic Party

Unity of Iraq






















































In the list above, the category “other” includes a Turkmen representative as well as the reported shock resignation of Hajim al-Hasani, who was given his “compensation” seat in parliament as the Sunni face of the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Those listed as “Allawi” tend to state their affiliation as being with the Harakat al-Iraqiyya created in 2009 rather than the older Wifaq sub-bloc of Allawi.

From this rough calculation, a somewhat more even distribution of resigned Iraqiyya MPs emerges. Parliament speaker Nujayfi still has the lion’s share of resigned MPs, but a considerable number of Hall deputies (Karbuli) – from Baghdad in particular – have also resigned. Pretty much all of the Iraqi Islamic Party has resigned, signifying their growing conflict with Maliki over the past few years.

Politically speaking, it must be bad for Maliki that so much of the Karbuli faction has resigned. Back in 2012, following the conflict over Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi (who also resigned formally yesterday, at long last), there were signs they were ready to cooperate with Maliki. He didn’t really seem to respond, and today what remains of Iraqiyya in parliament are largely people close to Ayyad Allawi, who are even less likely to cooperate with him.

That said, the question of the consequences of these resignations need not be as dramatic as one would first think. It is noteworthy that the question of resignation of MPs is governed by the law on deputy replacement from 2007, rather than by parliament bylaws. That law says parliament must approve the resignation of deputies if they resign of their own free will.

To some extent, this may all be a pre-election stunt by deputies who realized they might lose their seats unless they improved their popular image. Still, the Iraqi parliament has to pass the 2014 budget before the April elections. It may still be able to get the quorum to do so without the resigned 44, though Maliki will now be more reliant on cooperation with the Kurds than before. It is also possible that some Sunni MPs will chose to remain active in parliament even in the polarized political climate of the day. On the pattern of the governorate council in Anbar – whose members continue to work with Maliki against movements they see as too extreme – they may realize that there are still Sunni Iraqis who are not particularly attracted to the radical rhetoric emerging from all sorts of pan-Islamic movements in neighbouring Syria.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Dammit, It Is NOT Unravelling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 December 2013 2:25

I have long maintained that Western commentary on the Middle East is driven as much by trends in journalese as by realities on the ground and historical facts. For example, for much of the past decade we have been told that the country of Iraq is about to “implode”, given that it was “cobbled together” after the First World War from three “disparate” provinces whose centrifugal forces have continued to “fuel” and “stoke” conflict between “embattled” Iraqi “factions” in the period after 2003, making it quite impossible for them to justly “divvy up” the country’s revenue derived from the “oil-rich Shiite south” and the “Kurdish north”. All of this is misleading, and if these clichés hadn’t been employed by Western journos and pundits in the first place it would perhaps have been easier to understand the survival of Iraq as a nation despite pressures from the outside that can hardly be described as other than extreme.

With the recent shift of attention to Syria, a new artificial focus of discussion has emerged among Western pundits, namely, whether the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French during the First World War is in the process of “unravelling”. Most commentators seem to think it is, with a particular emphasis on the supposed role of Sykes-Picot in determining the modern boundary between Iraq and Syria. As a consequence of this perspective, the ragtag of bandits and terrorists that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) end up being portrayed, explicitly or implicitly, as the implementers of some kind of deep-rooted popular urge for pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity that supposedly pulls the Syrian and Iraqi peoples towards each other.

Here is why the current focus on Sykes Picot is misguided.

1. The Sykes-Picot Agreement Is Not What Many People Think It Is. When it was concluded in 1916, the main idea behind the agreement was to secure annexation of certain coastal areas that were deemed to be of particular interest to the allies, especially Basra for the British and the coastland between Lebanon and Cilicia for the French (the Russians were accorded control of the Straits for similar reasons). The truly important aspect of the Sykes-Picot map were therefore the areas of exclusive control along the coasts – British in Acre/Haifa and Basra (naval interest playing a key role); French in Lebanon and north to Alexandretta in Turkey (the location of Christian minorities was accorded much importance). By way of contrast, the details of demarcation in the interior – where a more informal form of British and French influence was envisaged – was accorded less importance at the time. Furthermore, scholars such as Eliezer Tauber and Nelida Fuccaro have convincingly demonstrated that local politics, not the rough lines of Sykes Picot, governed the final details regarding the disposal of border areas between Syria and Iraq like Abu Kamal and Jabal Sinjar during the 1920s. Conversely, local resistance against Sykes Picot at the time was mainly framed as a protest against the way in which the agreement  divided what was perceived as  “historical Syria” by isolating the coastal fringe including Lebanon and the Alawite lands from Damascus. The desire for union between Iraq and Syria, by way of contrast, was not such a central theme. By December 1918, the Covenant society loyal to the Hashemite princes, probably the most pan-Arab force of the day, had itself fragmented into Syrian and Iraqi branches, quite without the help of foreign officers. To the extent that cross-border irredentism continued to survive in the 1920s and the 1930s, it mostly had the character of local regionalisms rather than popular movements for Syrian-Iraqi unity. In particular, the territory along the Euphrates from Ana in Iraq north to Raqqa in Syria remained the subject of some turbulence, with Raqqa often enumerated among Iraqi nationalists as a maximum objective of western expansion. Similarly, Hanna Batatu identified a degree of interwar regionalism linking Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria as a result of the way new borders cut across that old trade region. At no point, though, did any viable separatist or irredentist party emerge.

2. The Central Features of the Post-1918 Map of the Middle East Had Local Antecedents. Sometimes Sykes-Picot is being construed as a complete armchair project by willful European strategists. What is often not realized is the extent to which the agreement merely put on the map patterns of special administrative arrangements that had been in the making under the Ottomans for decades, if not longer. Thus, special Ottoman arrangements for Palestine and Lebanon date back to the nineteenth century: the special administrative district of Lebanon dating to 1861 and the special district of Jerusalem established in the 1870s. As for Iraq, it had been separated entirely from Syria in administrative terms almost since the beginning of Islam – and had for long periods been ruled from Baghdad as a single charge. Again, the only real exception pertains to the Raqqa-Ana borderlands which in brief intervals had gravitated towards Baghdad rather than Damascus. All the talk that these boundaries are a mere hundred years old and that everything was designed by a couple of European colonial strategists is utter unscientific nonsense that collapses immediately upon confrontation with contemporary primary documents, where terms like “Syria” and “Iraq” were in widespread use long before Sykes and Picot even knew where these areas were located.

3. The Bits of Sykes-Picot That Were Actually Implemented Are Very Few. It is often forgotten that most of the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented. Stipulated French control in Mosul was soon reversed. Alexandretta (Hatay)reverted to Turkey whereas the Alawite lands of Syria fell to Damascus during the decades of the French mandate before World War II. Sykes-Picot, by way of contrast, had prescribed territorial unity between what was seen as the “minority lands” of Lebanon, the Alawite areas of Syria and the mixed areas of southeastern parts of Turkey. What remains is the rough line of division between Syria and Iraq, but again that broadly reflected indigenous patterns of administrative subdivision and was not really implemented to the letter in any case.

4. Things Aren’t Unravelling Completely Anyway. OK, so we have hordes of ultra-radical Islamists occupying points on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. They talk pan-Islamic and sometimes act pan-Islamic. Isn’t that decisive proof that the borders of the past, whatever their exact historical origins, are falling apart? Far from it. They are receiving more attention today because everyone’s eyes are on Syria, but back in 2005 pan-Islamic movements also operated in this area, including an Islamic emirate in al-Qaim near the Syrian-Iraqi border. In the face of that challenge, the Sunni population of western Iraq rose in protest through the sahwa movements. Today, there is once more a tug-of-war between pan-Islamism and Iraqi nationalism, but by no means has the local population universally sided with the Islamist rebels. Despite continuing squabbles among Iraqi leaders, a considerable segment of local Anbar politicians have rushed to support the Iraqi army in its efforts against pan-Islamist elements, showing that the people of western Iraq are once more sceptical about getting too intimately connected with political movements aiming at union with Syria. As for the continuing confrontations between Iraqi PM Maliki and individual Sunni leaders in Anbar, there are two ways of looking at them: True, Maliki’s rather overt use of the Iraqi judiciary to selectively target political enemies comes across as tendentious and often reckless; yet at the same time the apparently bottomless supply of Sunni tribal leaders prepared to continue to do business with him testifies to a degree of popular aversion to the alternative of all-out revolution. Finally,  note also that even ISIS in all their pan-Islamism couldn’t resist the differentiation between Syria and Iraq when they named their organization! The territorial spread of ISIS itself in Iraq and Syria with a core area along the upper Euphrates around Raqqa could even indicate that it resonates most strongly with a more limited historical legacy of regionalism in what was historically the Jazira borderland between Syria and Iraq (rather than with grand schemes for Fertile Crescent union) – and that this regionalism, in itself, ultimately remains subordinated to century-long patterns of administrative differentiation between Syria and Iraq that Sykes-Picot merely served to confirm.

Nothing in this should of course be seen to deny the validity of stories emphasizing the bitter fate of individual families living in borderlands affected by Sykes-Picot. But borderlands are always different, and European towns and farms with similarly heartbreaking stories about borders tearing families apart are legion. That does not mean Europeans need to urgently revisit past territorial agreements arrived at in places like Versailles (1919) or even Vienna (1815).

In sum, the current fixation with Sykes-Picot is just another case of Westerners being misrepresented as the omnipotent force in the Middle East. Today, the thing that appears to be in the greatest danger of unravelling is our fragile historical knowledge of the Middle East.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general | 4 Comments »

With Inspiration from Iraq, Syrian Kurds Publish a Draft Constitution

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 26 December 2013 0:03

After having mulled the question of a constitutional draft since at least June 2013, leading Syrian Kurdish politicians have recently published their draft constitution for areas they would like to see unified as a Kurdish region in a future Syrian federation.

In analyzing the Syrian Kurdish draft constitution, two logical points of comparison stand out: The draft constitution of the Iraqi Kurdistan region dating back to 2009, as well as the Iraqi constitution of 2005 which was drafted with heavy Kurdish influences. Generally speaking the Syrian Kurdish documents seems closely modelled on the Iraqi Kurdistan precedent, though with some important exceptions. Comparisons with the Iraqi constitution of 2005 are less rewarding simply because the Syrian Kurds have largely refrained from demarcating the exact borderline between federal and regional power in their draft constitution.

The Syrian Kurdish draft constitution begins with a section on fundamental concepts. Among other things, the northern Syrian city of Qamishli (Qamishlo in Kurdish) is designated as the capital of the proposed region. The Persian new year (Nowroz) will be the national holiday, and there will be a flag for the region, although its design is not defined by the draft paper. Kurdish and Arabic will be the official languages of the proposed region. The draft specifically states that the Kurdish people have chosen union with the rest of Syria in a federation and envisages the event of the termination of the relationship (i.e. secession) in the event that the federal authorities act unconstitutionally or in a racist manner.

The second section of the draft constitution, exactly like the Iraqi Kurdish one, is a long list of rights. In many ways the document goes further than many Western constitutions in terms of explicitly guaranteeing civil liberties, the rule of law, the impermissibility of all forms of torture or extra-judicial punishment etc.

Whereas much of the second section could be seen as boilerplate, the hard aspects of constitution writing are contained in section 3 on the structure of government. Unsurprisingly, a republican model of government has been chosen. Parliament will consist of one representative for every 35,000 inhabitants, and a degree of proportional representation of ethno-religious minorities (mukawanat) seems implied. Parliamentary cycles will be of four years’duration.

The envisaged Syrian Kurdistan parliament will legislate in areas of government that are not the exclusive prerogative of the central government; these areas are however not enumerated. It is still possible, though, to catch a glimpse of the intensions of the Kurdish constitution framers in this respect insofar as certain areas of government are accorded special mention. Firstly, it is stipulated that parliament will legislate taxes and adopt an annual budget, meaning considerable financial autonomy is envisaged. Secondly, parliament will appoint heads of “regional guards”, the police and security forces. The nomenclature is identical to Iraqi Kurdistan, which governs its security affairs entirely without any interference from Baghdad.

As regards the proposed executive, the vision of presidential power is particularly interesting. The Syrian Kurdish constitution calls for a strong, popularly elected president that will have significant roles with respect to government formation, relations with federal authorities, amnesty, and questions regarding state of emergency. The Syrian Kurdish president will however not be quite as strong as his Iraqi Kurdish counterpart. Whereas the Iraqi Kurdistan president is commander in chief of the Kurdish armed forces, the Syrian Kurdistan one will be so for ceremonial purposes only. Similarly, whereas the Iraqi Kurdistani president has the right to initiate legislation, no such role is foreshadowed for the Syrian Kurdistan president under the draft constitution. Presidential terms are limited to two times four years, similar to all other leading positions in the proposed arrangements.

Regarding the powers of the cabinet, a particularly interesting point relates to oil and gas. It is stipulated that the cabinet will cooperate with the central government in order to find the best way of exploiting oil and gas resources, with Syrian Kurdish parliamentary approval needed for anything relating to resources within the Kurdish region. Compared with the situation on the ground in Iraq – where Kurdish authorities have recently concluded entire pipeline deals with Turkey without much discussion with Baghdad – this does come across as a somewhat softer position, allowing a greater role for Damascus in Syrian Kurdish energy discussion than what the KRG is prepared to accord Baghdad.

Finally, the chapter on state structure envisages the creation of a fully-fledged judiciary, with its own prosecutor-general, court of cassation and even a constitutional court. Again, this resembles Iraqi Kurdistan realities to some extent and arguably goes even further in terms of carving out regional autonomy.

A separate chapter deals with security. Some of it consists of reiteration of points already mentioned under the powers of the executive and the legislature. Other articles add interesting pieces of information. For example, it is stipulated that the minister of the interior should be a civilian. Also, the point is made that the guards of the region, although locally controlled, should be financed by the central government for the role they ostensibly play in external defence. This, in turn, relates to the Iraqi precedent, where the Kurds demand that Baghdad pay for their peshmerga forces.

The big difference with respect to the Iraqi precedent concerns constitution making at the federal level. Already in the 1990s, Iraqi Kurds began writing constitutional draft for a future Iraqi federation of Arabs and Kurds. That document, in turn, made it easier to see what the Kurds envisaged in terms of distribution of power between the centre and the region in various spheres of government. Such a proposal at the federal level is still lacking with respect to the Syrian Kurds. The only mention of an exclusive power of the federal government is an en passant reference to foreign policy. This makes it more difficult to discern the maximum demands of the Syrian Kurds in their new draft constitution – perhaps a reflection of a situation that is even more chaotic than post-Saddam Iraq, as regards the external environment and intra-Kurdish divisions alike.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general | 6 Comments »

Spanish and Iraqi Influences in the UN Proposal for a Federal Yemen

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 23:43

It was apparently shot down by major Yemeni parties shortly after its release, but the new official UN policy document on Yemen and the problem of southern separatism is worth a closer look for what it says about the spread of federalism in the Middle East more generally, and the enduring influences of Iraq’s ambivalent federalism experience in particular.

Two key questions will recur in any proposal of constitutional federal design. Firstly, there is the issue of distribution of power between the centre and the regions. Secondly, there is the question of demarcation of regions in the new federal state. The UN proposal for Yemen, authored by the UNSG special representative Jamal Benomar, is particularly interesting for the details it provides on the UN suggestion for the second question, i.e. what will be the constituent elements of a new federal Yemeni state. Whereas the question of what responsibilities will be vested in different levels of government is largely left unresolved (and considered as being within the domain of new constitution writing), the UN paper does provide a high level of detail on what sort of political process could determine the fundamental administrative structure of a new Yemen.

The proposed mechanisms for sorting out Yemen’s future administrative structure are set out in section 3 of the UN  paper.

In the first instance, the UN envisages the formation of a national committee that will deliberate the question of what will form the ideal federal regions in Yemen, based on a series of key indicators ranging from historical factors to infrastructural considerations. The committee will specifically consider previous proposals ranging from a federal state of two constituent elements (north and south) to multi-regional proposals (typically ranging from 5 to 7 federal regions). Existing governorates (muhafaza, same term as in Iraq) will become “provinces” (wilaya) in the event of joining a new region (iqlim, also same terminology as Iraq).

The more problematic aspects of the paper relate to the very realistic prospects that, a) the committee fails to agree internally, and b) the population of the affected areas don’t agree with the proposals of the national committee.

Firstly, absent intra-committee consensus, provisions are made for a ¾ secret majority vote inside the committee itself. Failing that, the head of the committee is given special powers to  seek consensus, albeit the mechanisms for doing so remain largely unclear. The question of what will happen if there is not even an absolute majority for anything on the committee is left completely untouched.

At any rate, the rest of the document is predicated on a scenario in which a definitive proposal of federalization into a finite number of regions does indeed emerge from the committee. It then goes on to consider the modalities for popular approval. Or, rather one should say “local politician approval”, because everything will apparently be settled by votes in the councils of the existing governorates rather than by popular referenda. In the first instance, a two-thirds majority of the provincial council members in a governorate affected by a proposed new region can reject incorporation in that region. The Yes governorates, in turn,  may elect to form a region of their own without the No governorates if they can muster the required majorities for the modified regional vision. The No governorates are also accorded a second chance to join the proposed region through a second vote within 3 months; however it they then fail to join, they will remain governed by the central government for at least five years. (Apparently, they will not enjoy the option of transforming themselves to a single-governorate federal region.) Later, after five years, they can form a region together with other such non-federated governorates based on a 60% majority of their councils or they can join an existing region that may be willing to let them enter. Finally, the UN document envisages the possibility of super-region formation on the basis of neighbouring, newly constituted federal regions, requiring a ¾ majority approval in the provincial units (wilayas) of the new regions.

Does this sound familiar? In many ways the proposed process borrows from the experiences of federalization in Spain in the late 1970s after the transition from decades of authoritarian rule under General Franco, which also played out as a dialectic between popular initiatives and elite demarcation of the new federalism map. Importantly, in the way the Yemen proposal is heavily biased towards the signals from the national committee it largely resonates with what actually happened in Spain. Whereas the new Spanish constitution outlined an interesting model of ultra-democratic bottom–up federalization, elite politicians soon got worried about the forces let loose by this process and largely recouped leadership of the process, eventually settling the federal map of Spain largely through committee fiat. Crucially, in the UN paper on Yemen, whereas in theory everything is approved at the level of existing governorates, in practice the initiative rests firmly with the national committee. If they fail to join a region defined by elite politicians, governorates will be saddled with central government administration for five years, almost as if it is meant to constitute punishment for failure to adhere to the new federalism imposed from above.

It can be useful also to contrast the proposed mechanisms with the way federalism has been tentatively implemented in Iraq after 2005. Generally speaking, it seems the UN is eager to avoid some of the weaknesses that emerged from the very permissive model for federalization that was eventually adopted in Iraq through the law on forming federal regions in October 2006. In the case of Iraq, there is the theoretical possibility of almost endless and continuous region formation, something that can easily prompt political instability and may lead to situations in which the threat of region formation can be used for all sorts of blackmail purposes even by politicians who are entirely uninterested in the idea of federalism as such. This has posed significant challenges for the Iraqi central government, whose failure to allow several federalism initiatives in provinces like Basra, Salahaddin and Wasit can hardly be described as anything other than unconstitutional. Many will argue, though, that the government’s actions are justifiable for the sake of the stability of the country, and that it is really the constitution and the federalism law of 2006 that go too far and that need reform.

Conversely, in Yemen, such scenarios of bottom–up federalization will now be more unlikely. The more pressing question is how this latest UN paper will fit in with existing visions of federalism (and even independence) among the key political players, and with the process of national reconciliation more broadly. In the first place, it is unclear what role this kind of paper will really play given that it is predicated on a process of constitution writing which will likely in itself be an autonomous affair, to some extent unbound by past agreements. Second, there is the question of whether the vision of agreement on federal units among national political elites is a realistic prospect. At the present time, it is thought that the vision of a large number of federal units is partly a northern strategy to dilute the southern vision of a two-state entity that would eventually permit southern secession. For its part, the vision of southern unity seems to mask the existence of multiple, partly incompatible, projects of southern autonomy and even independence. In particular, the extent to which historical centres like Aden and the Hawramawt can realistically be considered a unified force seems open to question. Unlike the situation in Iraq in 2005, where Kurdistan was the only realistic candidate for immediate federal status, the Yemen situation is muddled by the existing of multiple aspirations to autonomy that are sometimes mutually incompatible.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this paper is the light it casts on the UN role in navigating Yemen’s complex political landscape. Lip service is being paid to a democratic process of federalization, yet the paper gives a national committee of political elites the greatest say in the matter, with governorate politicians (rather than the inhabitants of the governorates) playing  second fiddle. Realistically speaking, a paper like this can probably be nothing more than a means to help initiate a more fundamental process of constitution writing, during which unresolved issues will inevitably come up again. Yemen looks set to have a cumbersome federalization process – more like Libya than Iraq – but then again the Iraqi precedent makes it abundantly clear that decisions on momentous things like federalism are probably best made without deadlines and time pressures being imposed with force from the outside.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East | Comments Off

Additional Political Entities Are Approved for the Iraq 2014 Parliamentary Elections

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 23:37

The Iraqi elections commission IHEC has now released a second PDF file of political entities approved to run in the April 2014 parliamentary elections. This list seems to be the final one after an initial list presented on the day when the deadline for registering parties expired seemed to contain some lacunae.

The list includes some big players that were absent in the first list. In addition to the Kurdish KDP, there is the Hiwar party of Saleh al-Mutlak from the Iraqiyya coalition and the Reform bloc of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the former Shiite Islamist prime minister.

There are also further indications of persistent sub-division in Iraqiyya and the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki alike. Registering as separate tickets are Wathab Shakir (previously Unity of Iraq/Iraqiyya), Umar al-Jibburi (running independently in Kirkuk), Ali al-Sajri (previously Unity of Iraq)  and Saad al-Mutalabi (reckoned as a Maliki ally).

Other Shiite players with their own entities include former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, Basra secularist and sometimes autonomist Wael Abd al-Latif, as well as the tribal figure Karim al-Muhammadawi (“Lords of the Marshes”) whose party, Hizbollah, is unconnected with its Lebanese namesake.

The next milestone is now the deadline for forming coalitions next week. It is quite remarkable that despite the regional and sectarian tensions brought about by the Syrian crisis, Iraqi Shiites are in no rush to form a unified alliance, quite unlike the situation in 2009. As of today, it seems more likely that there will be a Maliki front and one or two challenging coalitions. Such a scenario would in itself send a positive message at a time when political violence continues at an elevated level.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014 | 5 Comments »

The Iraqi Elections Commission Publishes the List of Political Entities for the 2014 Parliamentary Elections

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 20 November 2013 19:35

Coinciding with the expiry of the extended deadline for registering political entities for the April 2014 parliamentary elections (and following approval of changes to the electoral system), a list of 142 entities certified by the Iraqi elections commission so far was released today. It is possible that there will be last minute additions, but most of the big players are included, suggesting the list gives a good picture of the parties that will take part in the elections.  That being said, one should perhaps not look to this list with too much in the way of expectations about answers to what the political landscape will be like in the next general elections in Iraq. During the run-up to the previous elections in March 2010, it became clear that it was the subsequent announcement of coalitions – expected to take place in December this year – that proved significant as a harbinger of the electoral frontlines.

Nonetheless, it is worth taking a closer look at this material. Starting with the Shiite Islamists, all the big parties are in there, and there is also evidence of the persistence of some of the internal subdivisions within the State of Law alliance that came to the fore in the local elections this year. Thus, firstly there are Ahrar (Sadrists), Risaliyun (Shahmani), Fadila, Badr, Hizbollah in Iraq (Sari), Muwatin (ISCI), Iraq National Congress (Chalabi), Muwafaq al-Rubayie, Daawa (Tanzim al-Dakhil), Daawa (Maliki), Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq), Daawa (Haraka), Independents (Shahristani), as well as State of Law somewhat incongruously registered as an “entity” in the name of Haydar al-Abbadi (the same thing happened before the local elections and it is a little unclear why they are registering the coalition as a party). Independent Sabah al- Saadi, formerly of Fadila and with notoriety for his battle with PM Maliki, has his own party; the Shaykhi subsect of Basra is also running an entity of their own (Amir al-Fayiz). And then there are small parties of people with ties to State of Law: Ali al-Dabbagh, Shirwan al-Waeli and Haytham al-Jibburi. Some of these managed to win seats in the local elections in April. By continuing to exist as recognizable entities, they also signify potential centres of gravity catering for the same electorate that Maliki has appealed to in the past. Finally, two ministers considered close to Maliki that are running separate parties may perhaps be considered in a different light since they appeal to voters outside the Shiite Islamist base of Maliki. They are Sadun al-Dulaymi (Sunni Arab) and Turhan al-Mufti (Turkmen).

Turning to the secular-Sunni circles that in the past have been associated with Iraqiyya, an even greater degree of formal fragmentation can be seen. There is no entity called Iraqiyya as such. What was formerly Wifaq of Ayyad Allawi is now registered under the name of Nationalism (Al-Wataniya). Then there is the Mutahiddun list of parliament speaker Nujayfi , the Future party of Dhafir al-Ani, the small party of Hussein al-Shaalan, as well as a flurry of small lists associated with the defections from Iraqiyya in parliament that happened mainly in 2012 before and after the targeting of Vice President Tareq alHashemi. These include already known entities like White, Hall, Free Iraqiyya and Wataniyun, but there are also separate entities associated with figures like Ahmad al-Masari, Mustafa al-Hiti and Talal al-Zubayie. Saleh al-Mutlak does not appear to have registered a separate list, whereas it is noteworthy that the Iraqi Islamic Party (Sunni Islamist) has reappeared after it lost greatly to Iraqiyya in 2010 and was of little significance in the local elections in April this year.

Two significant omissions must be mentioned. For some reason, the Kurdish KDP party is not listed. Unless this is intended as grandstanding by Masud Barzani (who has hinted at the possibility of boycotting the elections), this presumably relates to a technicality. Also it is unclear whether a list loyal to Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq group, the Sadrist splinter group that has more recently flirted with Maliki, is included in this material. There is no obvious connection through name, but the party leadership has vowed it will run in the next elections.

All in all, it is the nature of an entity list of this kind that a fragmented picture appears. The list is a collection of potentials, and people who may intend to join coalitions at a future stage may have registered separately simply because of their own hubris. It is the coalition list that will truly count, and that is expected in December.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

After the Passage of Changes to the Iraqi Electoral System, Uncertainty about Their Legal Status

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 11 November 2013 18:33

Ever since the Iraqi parliament passed changes to the Iraqi electoral system on 4 November, doubt regarding the exact status of the action by parliament has lingered. In theory, the legal uncertainties concerning the nature of the piece of legislation passed by the government are such that parliamentary elections – now scheduled for late April 2014 – may be postponed or even canceled in a worst case scenario.


A juxtaposition of two snippets from the Iraqi parliamentary website – one on the day of the passage of the changes, and another featuring the website as it is today – highlight some of these ambiguities. On the day the law was passed, parliament published a legal text with the headline “law proposal for the revision of the electoral law no. 16 of 2005”. Conversely, today the headline for the same law simply reads, “election law for the Iraqi national assembly”. The more recent version of the document  is helpful in sorting out some contradictions that were present on the day the law was issued. In particular, it seemed strange to call the legislative act an amendment of the existing law, since article no. 47 of the newly passed piece of legislation specifically abrogated the law from 2005! But whereas semantics may be to blame in that respect, the distinction between a “law proposal” and a standard law is not so easily resolved. That is so because over the past couple of years, the Iraqi supreme court has developed something of a pet issue regarding the exclusive right of the executive power in Iraq – the cabinet and the president – to introduce legislative projects to parliament. An independent right of parliament to initiate legislation is not recognized,  and the court has consistently struck down as unconstitutional all “law proposals” that have been brought to its attention,  always citing article 60 of the Iraqi constitution.

It seems clear from all accounts that the new Iraqi electoral law that was passed last week was indeed a mere “proposal”. It reportedly originated from the legal committee in parliament. As such, it has not passed through the executive power, and it would be perfectly analogous and compatible with past precedent to have the law struck down as unconstitutional by the supreme court if anyone complained.

Crucially, such a formal complaint now reportedly exists. It has been reported that an exiled Iraqi  named Ayyad al-Bazi has submitted a complaint to the supreme court, precisely on the grounds that the new law is a mere proposal and therefore unconstitutional according to the court’s own jurisprudence.

Remarkably, at the same time, all major Iraqi parties insist they are looking ahead to elections in April next year. The State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said it was against the removal of the “largest remainder” method for calculating seats, but did not press the issue. For their part, the optics of the rapidly changing drafts of the law proposal seem to tell a story about quite intense horse-trading behind the scenes. First, of course, during the revision of the local election law in late 2012, it was thought the standard Sainte Lague method would offer the enhanced proportionality demanded by the supreme court after its review of the original election law from 2005. Then, in a draft for the changes to the general elections law published by Al-Mada in July, the D’Hondt proportional formula, which is slightly more beneficial to bigger parties, was used. Finally, all of a sudden, a so-called modified version of Sainte Lague was inserted in the law passed last week. “Modified Sainte Lague “ is already in use in several democracies including Norway and Sweden, with the first divisor of the votes aggregated by each party seat at 1.4. This gives bigger parties more advantages than a pure St. Lague would give (as in the Iraqi local elections law). Notice, though, that Iraq has created its own version of modified St. Lague, with the first divisor raised from 1.4 to 1.6, giving even more to the larger parties. (Also, unlike for example Norway, there are no longer any compensation seats at the national level in Iraq to reduce disproportionality.) This all smacks of a bazaar logic, and one cannot help wondering whether some of it represents a concession to Maliki, who was deeply unhappy with St. Lague in the local elections law.


One must also wonder how the Iraqi communist party, who started the drive towards a more proportional system through a complaint to the supreme court, feels about all this. There has been much confusion about the new changes, with some alarmist reports out of the United States suggesting that the threshold for representation has gone up dramatically. This is not the case: There is no longer any  “electoral divider” (qasim intikhabi) by which total votes are divided by seats available in each governorate to set an official cut-off point for representation. That was an aspect of the largest remainder method that no longer comes into play. However, simulations of the 2010 results strongly suggest that the communist party would remain unrepresented under the new system as well. Indeed, Arend Lijphart,  an internationally recognized expert on democratic theory and electoral systems, considers modified Sainte Lague with a divisor 0f 1,4 less proportional than largest remainder, meaning that Iraq with its even bigger divisor of 1.6 has moved even further away from the proportionality of the original system.

The communist party could thus legitimately complain to the supreme court again, since the new legislation has done little to address their claims and possibly has made for a worse situation from the proportionality point of view. Rather than changing the formula, the key to better proportionality would probably be either more national seats or a single constituency – the latter is mostly rejected by Iraqi parties because of its other disadvantages. In any case, now that Mr. Ayyad al-Bazi’s appeal has been lodged with the federal supreme court, something is there that can potentially be used to cancel or delay the elections, or be used as a means of pressure by those who are less eager to hold elections than others. On the surface, then, Iraq seems on track to polling in late April, with a deadline for political entity registration set for next week. Once more, though, Iraq’s supreme court could become embroiled in politics, and its track record of staying above Iraqi factionalism has not been a terribly good one during the past few years.

Posted in Iraq parliamentary elections 2014, Iraqi constitutional issues, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »


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