Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Mysterious Southern Regionalists Cause a Stir in Baghdad

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 15 April 2007 15:40

A conference held in Baghdad on 14 April by members of the Council for the Region of the South (Majlis Iqlim al-Janub) has attracted some interest in the pan-Arab press. The council works for the establishment of a southern region limited to Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar that would create a wedge internally among the Shiites by concentrating all the oil wealth in a single region and leaving six Shiite governorates without any oil.

The pan-Arab press has focused on negative reactions to the project among Iraqi parliamentarians, as could perhaps be predicted. Historically, even Shiite politicians from Baghdad and Najaf have been uneasy about the zest for autonomy among the population of the far south. Thus it is unsurprising that Ali al-Adib of the Daawa party should criticise the movement and its timing, although the manner in which he did so is quite remarkable: he said that such conferences should not come about without prior agreement with governmental and parliamentarian forces. That sort of comment is of course antithetical to the “federalism from below” spirit of the Iraqi constitution (where regions are to be created by popular initiatives rather than by national politicians), but is perhaps another sign that parliamentarians are ambivalent about the powers they theoretically have ceded in this manner – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) has so far been prominent in trying to impose a federal vision “from above”, namely, that of all the nine Shiite-majority regions south of Baghdad. Negative reactions from Sunni Islamists (who refer to the ongoing process of revising the Iraqi constitution) and “Sadrists” (who on this occasion continue to construe federalism as a plot to partition Iraq) are more in line with expectations, although it is noteworthy that the “Sadrist” press comment was delivered by a Fadila MP from Basra – which could be indicative of the ongoing tension between centralist and regionalist wings inside the Fadila, or a case of a defection from Fadila to the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. (The media tend to use the term “Sadrists” for the latter only. Conflict between the two groups have surged in Basra lately.)

The goals of the southern regionalists are well known. They have been pursued for more than two years, primarily by the Fadila party, but also by some secularists in Basra and by tribal leaders in Maysan and Dhi Qar (for background, see for instance ) The interesting aspect about this story is the identity of the regionalists in question. No names are given in the most recent press report, but an organisation with an identical name was founded in Nasiriyya in May last year – so far without attracting much attention from outsiders. Intriguingly, the leading figures behind that move were from SCIRI, Daawa and various smaller political groups in Nasiriyya. The Sadrists and Fadila were not represented. Of course, the central leadership of SCIRI favours a project which competes with the Region of the South (three governorates) – the far bigger Region of the Centre and the South (nine governorates), and as such the SCIRI-led organisation in favour of a small-scale south at first comes across as an astonishing contradiction.

There are at least two possible explanations. Firstly, regional sentiment in the far south of Iraq is very pronounced and often overrides the ideology of the central leadership of the national parties. This has been seen in Fadila (which has always been more localist in Basra), Daawa, among the Sadrists of Maysan (who sometimes employ regionalist rhetoric in the context of oil), and even among SCIRI members in Basra (some of whom continued to focus on Basra and the far south even after the central leadership had declared a single Shiite region as their goal.) The Nasiriyya-based Council for the Region of the South could be yet another example of regionalist sentiment cutting across ideological affiliations. Alternatively, this may be another instance of a phenomenon seen elsewhere in the south, where SCIRI have created “copycat” organisations in order to gain a foothold in a region where they traditionally have had problems. In Maysan, for instance, there are two Hizbollahs, one tribal and quite secularist, another pro-SCIRI and more Islamist. SCIRI are clearly trying to capitalise on the ongoing tension in the Sadrist camp in Basra between Fadila and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and theoretically this latest move by the Council for the Region of the South could have to do with another attempt at breaking down resistance to SCIRI in the far south, by co-opting and diluting it. The fact that the foundation of Majlis Iqlim al-Janub back in 2006 was widely reported in SCIRI and Badr media might suggest that the latter interpretation is the more plausible one.

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