Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Silent Drivers: The Census, Football and the Basra Region

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 23 September 2010 16:08

Several events scheduled for October might create additional hiccups for the Iraqi government-formation process. At the same time, they serve as an indicator of an unhealthy climate in Iraqi politics where personality issues prevail at the expense of ideological questions, creating illogical alliances and preventing more logical ones from materialising.

The most prominent of these issues is the census scheduled for the second half of October – Iraq’s first since 1997. Holding the census is seen as controversial by many Iraqi nationalists, including Arabs and Turkmens living in northern parts of Iraq that fell to Kurdish control during the chaos that reigned during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. Their fear is that Kurdish dominance on the ground will create biases in the way the census is conducted, with the potential of results that may be used by the Kurds in their quest to annex some of these areas which they claim as “disputed” ones. Even though the holding of a census in itself is not a political issue, the explicit mention in the Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 of a census as a step towards the settlement of so-called disputed territories means it will be seen as political pending the resolution of those territorial issues.

In terms of policy contradictions, it is the position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that stands out in this regard. Back in 2008, when Maliki turned to Iraqi nationalism, he for a while seemed to challenge Kurdish expansionism in the north and saw his popularity increase among some Sunni Arabs and Turkmens as a result. As late as in 2009, he played a role in delaying the census one year despite Kurdish pressures to have it conducted on time as per the census law adopted by the Iraqi parliament. However, since the autumn of 2009 – as the result of a series of events that led to Maliki’s greater isolation from much of the Iraqi political establishment from the August explosions in Baghdad onwards – the Iraqi premier has been increasingly conciliatory vis-à-vis the Kurds, seeing them perhaps as his best option for a post-election alliance at a time when he was probably inflating the potential for a big State of Law victory in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. During the debate on the election law, State of Law supported “special” but ultimately extremely diluted arrangements for Kirkuk that essentially gave the Kurds what they wanted there, and went on to support the Kurds during their attempt to exploit the veto of the law by Tareq al-Hashemi to achieve a new seat allocation formula more in tune with Kurdish demands. There was some limited but not decisive rapprochement on oil exports, and the Kurds offered some support to Maliki when he came under pressure in the shape of a projected “law on electoral conduct” and the debate on the budget. Now, indications are that Maliki will support holding the census on time.

The big irony of course is that even though Maliki seems to be investing heavily in Kurdish friendships right now, that in itself can not deliver the coveted premiership to him. Just like Iraqiyya in the case of the Sadrists, he is courting kingmakers that aren’t real kingmakers. To become the premier candidate of the would-be Shiite alliance, Maliki would need to improve relations with the Sadrists; alternatively, he could start a more serious kind of dialogue with Iraqiyya with the aim of establishing a bilateral pact with them. Of course, there is added irony because in principle both State of Law and Iraqiyya oppose ceding Kirkuk and other disputed territories to the Kurds, with the Daawa traditionally being less inclined than ISCI to make compromise with Arbil. Nonetheless, Iraqiyya keeps talking to ISCI and their Sadrists friends (their voters should ask whether Ammar al-Hakim is ready to stop the census), whereas Maliki keeps talking to the Kurds (it would be interesting to learn what the more hardliner, anti-Kurdish members of State of Law – like Abbas al-Bayati, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani and even Hussein al-Shahristani – think about the decision to persevere with the census in the current climate.)

A second possible showdown relates to the standoff regarding the national football committee – delayed for more than a year, but now also scheduled for October. Here, Maliki is facing off against prominent sports personalities that have a background in the old regime and that still receive some support internationally from FIFA, where there is a strong Arab voice within the Asian branch of the organisation. As ever, though, the conflict is not one hundred percent clear cut. Maliki has also promoted sports stars that have a background with the old regime. Rather, there is concern about the ways the government is trying to impose its own candidates to be coaches for important football clubs, as a springboard for eventually taking control of the football association itself. There is an added territorial dimension, too, with the football association and FIFA insisting on holding their elections in the Kurdish areas (“Baghdad is unsafe”), with Maliki of course preferring to have Baghdad as the venue of the elections since in his view it would be more normal for the capital to host such events. Again, the contradictions: Iraqiyya supporters in this case flocking to the Kurds with whom they disagree fundamentally on so many territorial issues; Maliki the centralist appearing to wake up again, if more reluctantly than before.

And finally, there is the reported revival of Basra federalism demands which would create even further contradictions if a referendum gets underway in earnest (such rumours also surfaced last winter).  In this case, Maliki the centralist could face challenges from his own ranks, where State of Law members in the Basra provincial council now express more pro-federal sentiment than they used to only a year ago, when a similar scheme was launched only to fail.

28 Responses to “The Silent Drivers: The Census, Football and the Basra Region”

  1. Reidar,
    Thank you for highlighting the census.
    I find the position of the UN on census interesting. The UN deputy representative for political affairs in Iraq Jerzy Skuratowicz highlighted the political aspect of census in Iraq and called on Iraqis to solve their political differences before conducting the census. I think Mr. Skuratowicz is confusing the cause with the effect: A census cannot and should not be politicised, if it is like many other legal and administrative processes in Iraq then the UN should offer help in removing politics from census, such as offering to run the census, not to give useless patronizing advice on solving more complex political problems before a simple census. What will happen if every country solved its politics before counting its population, there will be no need for census then!

  2. Steffen Merten said

    As always, thank you for your analysis and insight. Would you mind commenting further on the members of the SoL showing more federalist sentiment in Basra? Source? (Arabic works). Also, is the current attempt being haaded up by Wa’il Abd al Latif?

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Steffen, I haven’t written so much about this recrudescence of Basra regionalism yet since it is still unclear whether there will be a referendum or not (although 16 signatures by the provincial council should in principle oblige the Baghdad government to get a referendum process going). Exactly the same tendency was evident before the elections, but it came to nothing back then. For the role of the Basra provincial council leader – a Maliki supporter – compare for example (30 March) and (6 September).

    As for Wael Abd al-Latif who led the previous attempt ( )he is no longer influential in the Basra council, and I suspect as a past Iraqiyya/present INA member he may not be terribly friendly with State of Law, although the Basra council leader claims to have several parties represented in the regionalist bid.

  4. IMARK said

    Thank you Rediar for the tireless follow up of the intricate and dirty Iraqi politics. It is becoming more and more clear that both Allawi and Maliky are betraying every day the majority of Iraqis who voted for them only because they promised to adhere to a nationalistic agenda. Why is it impossible for the two men to sit together and agree to form a government that serves all Iraqis regardless of race, religion or sect? if only they put aside their personal ambitions for power and limitless greed.

  5. mostafa said

    Hi Reidar,
    Why is the change in the Syrian attitude of Iraq and especially of Nuri Almaliki?
    Recently we saw a delegation of SLA in Damascus, a large oil transit deal, lots of rumors about Syrian-Iranian agreement on Maliki as the next PM and most recently the agreement on getting back the ambassadors.

    Do you think that Iraqiyya is serious about not participating in a government headed by Maliki?

    What is happening in Najaf?
    Seems like Qubanji is trying to change the governor who says he doesn’t have any problem with him
    BTW who is Adnan Alzorfi and how did he get to be a governor?

  6. mostafa said

    It is not about personal hate or greed. If you know Iraq closely you’d realize that Maliki and Allawi would never agree in politics (I said that several times since the election). It is not about centralism vs fedralism or nationalism vs sectarianism. It is about Iraq’s autonomy which Maliki wants. What Allawi wants is obvious if you look at the formation and characteristics of his list Iraqiyya before, during and after the election with all those sectarian and Baathist-like leaders (Hashimi, Mutlaq, Nujaifi…) and the limitless Arab and Turki support with billions of Saudi dollars spent to form the list and smash all its opponents (Tawafuq, Unity of Iraq…)
    Maliki won’t allow Allawi and his Allies make Iraq get back to be the “eastern gate guard” for USA and its Arab allies

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Mostafa, about Syria, all I can say is that perhaps the idea that they would support Allawi via the Sadrists and against their policy of pragmatic coordination with Iran was after all somewhat unrealistic in the first place? However, I am still not truly convinced that Iran is so determined to get Maliki as the candidate at any price. To me, Iran seems determined to get an *NA candidate* at any price, with all other considerations being secondary. The idea that Maliki is Iran’s candidate number one is primarily being pushed by people who don’t like him for personal reasons.

    As for Zurfi in Najaf, you can see the background here:

    But let’s revert to the census, football and the Basra region!

  8. Steffen Merten said

    Today I read that Abd al Latif told the Iraqi Coucil of Reps that he will announce the formation of a new political party next month called the “state party” with the intent of strengthening government institutions in the Basra Region and acheiving autonomy ( Where is this stuff coming from? Another article says that polling suggests that 80-95% of Basrawis are against an autonomous region, so why do these jokers keep bringing it up and pushing for referendum? Is there that much support for the project among the elite? Or is it just a political ploy?

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Steffen, your article is from 2008, that’s the reason. It describes the efforts of Wail Abd al-Latif covered in many articles on this blog earlier, see for example the summary at

    Hizb al-Dawla was also created back then, just after his defection from Iraqiyya which is also described in the article. It was not an electoral success: Today, Abd al-Latif is a member of INA but no longer has a seat in parliament.

  10. Steffen Merten said

    AHA! That explains it. What about this one:

    Why don’t they give it up?

    What good is a failed referendum?

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Basra regionalism has been a pretty constant feature of Iraqi politics since 2003, and it echoes tendencies seen in the 1920s. Sometimes it is in the media, sometimes it isn’t. For an overview of the ups and downs, see

    Right now the key question is whether a referendum will be called or not. For example, previously, under the TAL in early 2005, there was an attempt to get a referendum going but Baghdad thwarted it.

  12. Kermanshahi said

    It’s ironic how those who supposedly have the public support don’t want to hold referendums but those supporting autonomy (in Basra and in Kerkuk), are the ones who do want to hold referendums and settle this democraticly, put it up to the people of the governorate to decide for themselfes).

  13. Reidar Visser said

    Support for the autonomous Iqlim al-Basra wasn’t exactly massive back in January 2009: The supporters of the project failed to garner the 140,000 signatures needed to hold a referendum back then.

  14. Kermanshahi said

    Well if there are really less than 140,000 supporters for the idea, in a governorate with nearly 1.5 milion registered voters, than what would be the point of calling a referendum? And if al-Maliki really does have the support of Basra’s people on this issue, then why does he refuse to let them have a vote on it?

  15. Reidar Visser said

    It is still unclear why the project has stalled at the level of the central government, i.e. to what extent Maliki or other individuals are playing a role at all.

    It is noteworthy that almost all the Shiite politicals parties have experienced various internal Basra revolts during the years. Harakat al-Daawa, for example, within the wider Daawa movement. Or ISCI people who favoured the one-governorate region at the expense of Ammar al-Hakim’s idea of a big Shiite region of nine governorates. Or the Fadila federalists, who were at odds with the central command of Fadila (which was sceptical about the virtues of federalism altogether).

  16. Mohammed said

    I have relatives in Basra, and their biggest complaint is about lack of services and a failure of a government to form. Basically…the same complaints the rest of the Iraqis have. Solve the problem for all, and this Basra autonomy stuff will never have any real support except by ISCI puppets who only seek to weaken Iraq as a whole so that they can run a shiite mafia (disguised as religious mullahs) in the south.

    Kermenshahi, like I asked you previously, should Iranian kurdistan have the right to vote to become autonomous and eventually join up with Iraqi kurdistan?


  17. Kermanshahi said

    Mohammad, my answer is yes, they should and as a matter of fact I am a supporter of federalism in Iran aswell as a redrawl of the provinces.

  18. Hasan said

    I think is what is beyond the autonomy demands of the ISCI is an ideological serious issue.
    For the neoshiites (the Mohammad Baquer Allsadr and Alkhomaini students) its a religious duty to held an Islamic government (like the Iran’s one) in the iraqi shiite regions which is impossible through the central government.
    We can see the rejection of this Idea by another neoshiites like Hezbullah in lebanon…. They considered the unity of Iraq in danger in this case… for me its a matter of the guarantees that ISCI in this issue, and clearly they are not in a popular situation that allows them to go ahead in this broject wright now…
    I think that the federalism should studied very well from ideological point of view and its a complex problem

  19. Hasan said

    Its not to be said in easy simple words… I think that we should carefully consider the unity of our countries as a priority when we talk about federalism…
    Still One of the most important strategic gains that iraq achieved since 2003 is the return of Kourdstan to its Home in spite of the unfair kurd treatment in election law and the Kerkuk problem still unsolved…I think that Talabani and Barasani Showed a great courage dealing with this problems.

  20. Santana said


    Your comment to Kermanshahi stating the importance of “Unity of our countries” I think I know what you are saying but my friend you are addressing a fellow Kurd who has no interest whatsoever in the Unity of Iraq or Iraq’s welfare period….Kermanshahi from what I understand is a very loyal Kurd that wants independence for Kurdistan by advocating the breaking off/Stealing of a huge chunk of Iraq….I am not criticizing him for it – he is free to advocate whatever he wants… but I just wanted you to understand that the hardcore Kurds do not care one bit about Iraq or whether it breaks off into a hundred pieces.. as far as they are concerned Iraq as a United country can go to hell.I will say it for the 100th time on here…Secular Sunnis and Shiites are the only group in Iraq that want Iraq to remain one piece, strong, stable and part of the Arab world as it always has been.

  21. Hasan said

    Thank you for your respond, but I’ld like to make some notes on what you said…
    I don’t think that Iraq was a unit, stable, strong or a part of the Arab world…
    Before 2003 the relations between Saddam and the other Arabs was much worse than now, and Kourdstan was independent… and we experienced its strongness facing the sanction where people were dieing from hunger, disease and tyranny. And we saw the steadfastness facing the invding army in 2003.
    Clearly Iraq was destroyed and now its alot better…. despite the crisis.

  22. Kermanshahi said

    Hasan, I wouldn’t exactly say the invasion made Iraq a lot better, during ~30 years Saddam was in power he killed between half a milion to a milion people, which is as much as have been killed in the 7 years since the invasion also the destruction the invasion, the insurgency and (particulary) counter-insurgency and the civil war have done to Iraq have made things a lot worse. Living standards were bad prior to the invasion, but they aren’t exactly good now either and although Iraq is more free and democratic than first it still isn’t completely free or democratic, not even in the North (where just this year a journalist was killed by Barzani which became major news), but speically not in the South.

  23. Mohammed said


    Given that INA has failed to form an effective kutla to date, with no signs of a breakthrough…why doesn’t Iraqiya demand that parliament convene now and elect a president. Afterall, if they got the Kurds and other small parties, they would have a majority.

    Why doesn’t Iraqiya for sheer publicity just start going to parliament everyday and debating issues, and challenge the other iraqi parties to come? I am not a fan of Iraqiya, but this is getting ridiculous…I know you say that people are afraid that once Iraqiya formally gets tapped to form the government, then there is a fear that they could actually do it. But, the fact that it has been 6 months and they failed tells me that it will be just as hard to do it in 30 more days. Then, the president can select whoever, and they agree by concensus once Iraqiya has failed, and nobody can complain about consitutionality.

    Instead, Iraqiya just seems to be sitting around doing nothing. SOL and ISCI are just spinning in circles. The MPs are getting paid to do nothing!

    Santana, I have told you this a million times, but for some reason you just dont seem to believe me. This division that you think there is between secular and religous shiites is not really there. It all goes back to human sociology (sociology in Iraq I define as who you hang out with). Ahmed Chalabi is not a mullah by any stretch of the imagination. But he hangs out with those types because it has helped secure him some influence. Ammar al-Hakim may wear a turban, but his primarily goal is not how he can please iran, it is how he can get more influence for himself and close followers. If splitting up Iraq and being a pawn of iran gives him more influence, then he will do it. I view secular people in the same light..if Allawi and Mutlaq can make an alliance with former baathists to get more influence, then they will do it.

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, they do not “have the Kurds”, and at any rate that would not be enough for electing the president. There appears to be a certain momentum building towards tonight’s meeting in the NA, with some suggestion that ISCI might even absent themselves in a protest against Maliki’s apparent ascendancy within the NA. Very interesting indeed. They are supposed to meet in a few hours.

  25. Kermanshahi said

    Well Reidar, they really should elect the President. Just hold an election in parliament, Jalal Talabani can easily beat al-Hashemi, than he can go ahead and nominate the PM.

  26. Santana said


    I agree with Reidar 100% that Iraqiya does NOT have the Kurds….as far as the division between the Seculars and the Sectarians (Religous guys) that you claim is not there…you make a good point and I honestly would like to believe that it’s true….but you must remember that INA (in it’s entirety and even in pieces) STILL reports to Tehran and although many elements within ISCI and Sadrists resent such comments (that they are stooges for Iran) but believe me Mohammed it is way beyond their control- there are people within the Shiite Establishment (akin to the commission for the Mafia) that have divulged that the establishment is MUCH bigger than anyone can imagine and headed by a very powerful committee that rules over the affairs of Shiites worldwide. This is why INA talks never advance with Iraqiya….whatever is agreed upon in the meetings gets shot down within 72 hours by the establishment if the establishment feels it will reduce Iranian and religous shiites power in Iraq (based on the current benchmarks)…and I am amazed that Iraqiya keeps going back for another “beating” which shows how big the rift is between Iraqiya and SoL .
    When Iran says that Iraqiya MUST be part of the new government…they stop there …what they really want to say is that Iraqiya must be part of the new government as the opposition.This is the only thing that will be approved by Iran and the Shiite Establishment (Almoassasa Al-Sheeieyah)and is the last thing Iraqiya would agree to especially after winning in the elections.

  27. and just for clarification: why do you, Reidar, put “disputed” in brackets? Surely there is a disagreement about the future status of these areas?

  28. Reidar Visser said

    As explained before, only Kirkuk is explicitly recognised in the TAL as a “disputed” area. Everything else is open to interpretation: Turkmens dispute Arbil; Kurds dispute Khanaqin and so on.

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