Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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.

9 Responses to “Hakim Still Dreaming about Regions”

  1. Reidar,

    Well said, as usual.
    Postponement of the elections is in the air, as well as more involvement of the U.N. in the election process, this is worriesome because half solutions and delays will let the proponents of the closed lists exert their pressure to keep the old system. On the other hand, a parliamentary decision in favor of open list will shake up the plans of the old guard.
    The scene is so fluid that there is expectation the INA will unravel.

  2. Sina ibn al-Iraq said

    How Sh’ia does the INA consider itself in terms of self identification and how does that play out politically?

    In understanding the rift between Maliki’s State of Law and the INA I keep going back to my notes on Wendt and constructivism.

    Maliki moves towards a nationalist view prompts a split resulting in an “Iraqi” and “Sh’ia” identity…or maybe in terms of hard politics Maliki doesn’t want to be Iran’s man in Iraq?

    I want to fit the material on this blog in a larger picture of Iran/Iraqi relations and political science literature.

    Anyway, as always informative and excellent post.


  3. Kirk Sowell said

    Hakim has spent 24 of his 38 years living entirely in Iran, and he seems to have spent much of even the last six traveling back and forth. His elevation to head of ISCI simply reinforces the case that ISCI is an Iranian surrogate. I’ve had my doubts before, but I would now say that where ISCI has shown independence of Iran in the past, these were compromises decided by Tehran for ISCI’s continued survival in Iraq politically. It is inconceivable that an independent political party would have made this decision.

    I think the INA will hold together until January and probably fall apart aftewards. If Maliki does reasonably well, then he’ll just be able to offer some ministries to the Sadrists and exclude ISCI entirely. I think that the INA needs 90-100 seats to have a chance at forming the next govenrment.

  4. Kirk Sowell said


    I presume you reader al-Malaf Press. It appears that they are plagarizing you. See this article: Ammar Hakim Still Believes in Forming Southern Region. Compare down through the first three paragraphs of your post; several sentences appear to be directly translated without attribution. It was published four days after yours.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Kirk, thanks! I thought the following part at the end was particularly rich:
    المصدر : جريدة النور الصادرة عن الملف برس – الكاتب: الملف برس
    They could at least have left that blank…

    To be honest, I think Malaf Press plagiarises many different writers. I never use anything from them unless I am able to establish the original source. To my mind they are one of those many clearing-house places around which are devoted to Iraqi politics but which indiscriminately combine sensational rumours and real stories. Sometimes they can be really useful and sometimes they make a lot of noise about absolutely nothing.

  6. Elizabeth Miller said


    I really do not understand the debate over federalism in Iraq. I mean, the way I see it, federalism does not mean an end to effective centralized government! It’s not an either/or type situation, is it?

    I’m also not completely familiar with what Hakim is advocating with respect to regions, but isn’t federalism really all about a division and sharing of power between the central federal government and the regions?

    I know a lot of people view what Joe Biden has advocated as partition or soft partition – I completely disagree with that assessment, by the way, and I am still in the process of reading the articles you referred my to earlier – but what he was really talking about was promoting a process by which all Iraqis could determine their political future by figuring out, through tough negotiations, how best to share power, resources and territory.

    The situation in Iraq has evolved since Senator Biden first began talking about these issues and his thinking, we can fairly assume, has also evolved. The kind of federalism that many Iraqis might eventually settle on may not be entirely based – or based at all – on ethnicity…this is, of course, entirely up to the Iraqis. But, for example, one form of federalsim, which has been referred to as “administrative federalism” where there is some devolution of power from the central government to the regions in a political compact, agreed to by a majority of Iraqis, would simply allow for more local control.

    I understand how complicated these issues are and that constitutional amendments will be required. It is never easy to share power beacuse that necessarily means that power will be lost by some while it is gained by others. As a Canadian, I am painfully aware of the difficulties involved in power-sharing and amending the constitution. Don’t even ask! But, if this process is inclusive and infused with good leadership and is one that can be supported by all Iraqis, then it is possible to make progress toward national political reconciliation and make a stable and united Iraq a reality.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Elizabeth, briefly put, the decentralisation argument postulates that the concentration of power in Baghdad is problematic. That argument is widespread among the Kurds, and it was widely expected that the post-2003 arrangements in Iraq would include some kind of special status for Kurdistan, which most Iraqis agree with. The problem concerns federalism south of Kurdistan. This is where the Paul Bremer era created space for leaders and ideas that have extremely limited support south of Kurdistan but who nevertheless (and through the good offices of outside figures like Peter Galbraith and his Porcupine)were influential enough with Washington and Tehran at the time to create the 2005 constitution, where federalism is adopted as a general principle for Iraq. Few Iraqis had any idea about what they voted for in the October 2005 constitution, and today an increasing number want to put an end to the process of federalisation south of Kurdistan simply because it addresses an imagined problem (fear of Baghdad) that does not exist to any significant extent on the ground. Iraqis south of Kurdistan are less interested in creating new regions and instead want to focus on more pressing issues like jobs,services and the economy.

    Hence the problem is the imposition of a symmetric model of federalism on a country better suited for asymmetrical federalism. Is there not a parallel to Canada here? Quebec perhaps as Kurdistan (confederalist/separatist), BC as Basra (flirting with federalism but not truly convinced) and the rest less enthusiastic about the whole idea? Not that I know anything about Canada but as far as I have understood there are at least different levels of federal aspirations. Would truly symmetric federalism (i.e. carried out to the letter) ever work in Canada?

  8. Elizabeth Miller said

    Asymmetrical federalism! That’s it! That’s what I’m talking about.

    The word ‘federalism’ had many different connotations – some good, some bad – for many different people. I think one of the problems with this whole concept is one of simple semantics and how people perceive what federalism is.

    Frankly, I think we may need a new word!

    And, yes…there certainly are parallels in Canada. Of course, in Canada, we have the question of the rights of Aboriginal peoples and how these rights should be respected and how to share power between aboriginal and non-aborignal governments. One concept that I have always found important in our case – and it could be the same for Iraq – is that you don’t necessarily have to treat each province or each First Nation the same in order to treat them equally. In other words, equality doesn’t necessarily mean ‘sameness’. It’s a concept, though, that is not easy for many people to understand. Let’s just say that we have a very, very long way to go to perfect our own special brand of asymmetrical federalism.

    I hope Iraqis have better luck!

  9. Elizabeth Miller said

    Oh, I meant to say also that truly ‘symmetrical federalism’, as I understand that concept, relates to the idea I was talking about that equality doesn’t mean that you have to treat different provinces or regions the same.

    I can’t imagine a truly symmetrical form of federalism working very well anywhere…population are too diverse for that.

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