Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Iraqi Shiites Debate Federalism Again

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

Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi’s recent outburst about potential Sunni separatism has had the side effect of a limited resurgence of discussion of federalism among Iraq’s Shiite Islamist factions.

So far, the contributions to this reawakened debate follow patterns that are familiar to those who followed the previous discussion about federalism south of Baghdad in the 2005–2007 period: The Shiite Islamists remain divided on federalism, with many signalling only limited interest in the concept as such, and most players being explicitly opposed to the idea of a single Shiite region that was propagated by ISCI and the Hakim family from 2005 onwards. Only some Kurds keep calling for a tripartite Iraq made up by ethnic and sectarian regions.

A typical example are recent statements by Shakir al-Darraji, from the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. While correctly conceding that the creation of new federal regions are the prerogative of popular initiatives in the governorates, Darraji warns against any new regions at the current stage given the security situation and the heated political atmosphere. Specifically, he warns against a single Shiite region: Such a region would not be in the interest of the Sunnis and Kurds, Darraji says, before adding that the considerations of Iraq’s interest as a whole should be given due weight in any renewed federalism discussion. Symptomatically perhaps, in his interview, Darraji also gave an erroneous account of the legal framework for forming new regions: By saying that any three governorates have the constitutional right to form a new region he reiterated the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law from 2004 rather than those of the new constitution in 2005 (which allows for any combination of governorates into federal regions, excepting Baghdad, as well as uni-governorate federal regions.)

For his part, Muqtada al-Sadr has commented on the recent threat by Usama al-Nujayfi by challenging the inhabitants of these regions to prove their interest in federalism in a referendum. He added that he was against any kind of federalism that would lead to partition… Also, to the extent that there are departures from this general trend, they relate to Basra – as they always did in the past. In a recent statement Jawad al-Bazuni, a young deputy from Basra affiliated with Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) exhibits this tendency. Echoing pro-federal tendencies in evidence among State of Law deputies who captured the governorate council in Basra in January 2009, Buzuni says the creation of multiple federal regions would be the best solution in Iraq in the context of enduring political tension. Buzuni also highlights the Kurdish experience as a successful case of federalism.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in all of this has come from a “Sunni source” – Nujayfi himself. In media comments subsequent to the latest controversy about his statements, Nujayfi revealed that in addition to the petition by the Basra governorate council for a federalism referendum that was submitted in the second half of 2010 (but has so far remained unaddressed by the government in Baghdad in violation of the law on implementing federalism), a similar petition from the governorate council in Wasit, signed by 16 out of 28 council members, was submitted some 2 months ago. This is interesting because Wasit has not figured prominently in past discussions of federalism among Iraqi Shiites. The existence of an oilfield operated by a Chinese company in the governorate adds to the complexity of centre–periphery relations in this case, as does the fact that the State of Law alliance is severely divided there, with a recent split between the Shahristani and the Maliki blocs (the Shahristani supporters have joined independents and the Iraqi Constitutional Party). The exact political configuration behind the latest pro-federal move remains unclear, but an ISCI politician played a key role in making the first moves in 2010.

19 Responses to “Iraqi Shiites Debate Federalism Again”

  1. Kermanshahi said

    The Iraqi government should stop denying people their democratic rights and allow referendums in Basra, Wasit and Kerkuk. If these people really don’t want federalism, than why don’t they allow a vote?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Is there a formal request from one-third of the members of the Kirkuk council to the central government to arrange a referendum on federal status there?? Basra has tried once of course, but there is nothing in the law that prevents another attempt.

  3. Jason said

    Seems like the politicians should stop worrying about all these inane topics and start focusing on jobs, electricity, water, sanitation, etc. Or do the Iraqi people not care about those things?

    Speaking of, where could I find a good analysis of the Iraqi economy? Is it still primarily a centrally planned system, or has there been any progress toward privatization and a more free market system?

  4. Reidar Visser said

    Well, Jason, many of those who talk about those inane topics are also the ones who like to talk about privatization!

  5. Salah said

    لموسوي : مجلس محافظة ميسان يصوت باغلبية ساحقة على مناقشة قرار اقليم ميسان

  6. Kermanshahi said

    Formal request from local council? It’s in the constitution: Kerkuk referendum must be held, yet al-Maliki continues to violate the constitution and illigitimately occupy the city.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    OK Kermanshahi, but you seemed to describe some kind of parallel between Basra, Wasit and Tamim, but if you are simply referring to article 140 then there isn’t one.

    Salah, it is interesting that an ISCI politician, Abd al-Hussein Abd al-Rida, has been very prominent in the beginnings of what could become a Maysan federalism initiative. He has also hinted at possible 3-governorate or 9-governorate combinations.

  8. Santana said

    The Maysan Federalism attempt is a very serious one and Iran is behind it all the way- it straddles the border with Iran and will be the main base to facilitate the entry of Quds and Revolutionary Guard “peace lovers”

    . All Hezbollah Iraq and Shiite Militias will be recruited, trained , armed and then sent out to the other provinces to assassinate, plant bombs and start the ethnic cleansing.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Santana, thanks. The planned meeting in the Maysan council has just been postponed until next week, supposedly due to a lack of quorum. Will be interesting to see how Maliki’s guys react to this. Maysan is especially interesting because back in 2009 Maliki handed ISCI the provincial council speakership and formed a coalition with them even though mathematically speaking he could have created a smaller coalition and excluded them like he did in most other provinces.

    Meanwhile, Iraqiyya has some explaining to do now regarding the reported scheme to combine Salahaddin and Nineveh, with a possible view to adding Anbar – which would look pretty much like a “Sunni region” of the kind that would make Joe Biden proud. This has been evolving gradually for some time, but there has been many denials. Now a senior Iraqiyya politician seems to be speaking enthusiastically about it:

  10. Santana said


    There are Iraqiya Parliament members that feel there is no hope at all and that Iraq is finished and so they have the attitude that anything is better than nothing- I disagree – but they tell me that if I knew what they know, then I would be less critical…..and infact would support it….let’s see what Biden does on his visit since it is coinciding with all this Federalism push….he might end up saying- see- I told you guys in 2006 this is the way to go……!

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Well in that case it would not be because Biden was right in 2006 but because the Obama admin, incl. Biden, was wrong in 2009-2010!

  12. Salah said


    The continuing raises of federalism in Iraq and goes down results more by personal initiative which may have some support from within inner circle due to in today Iraq its very common people in some official (elected or not no difference) very consistence to keep their post what matter how far they can go far from what mainstream Iraqi needs.

    This matter if there is very public support would succeeded eight years ago, looks some fingers rushing to play their goals and pushing their agenda taken the matter far from city or regional federalism initiative.
    It is not the constitution not article 140, all goes back to the Iraqi people and their desire to live in dignity seeking better life that have under different old regimes. despite they promised and hoped this democratic system will raising them upfront in the region may be in the world the reality on ground speak by itself not as some like to say just Like Karm….or Moh..

  13. Santana said

    Reidar said “Well in that case it would not be because Biden was right in 2006 but because the Obama admin, incl. Biden, was wrong in 2009-2010”!

    That’s a great point Reidar -so very true !!!

  14. iraqiobserver said

    I am not sure why – but it seems that the discussions of politicians (be they in the local councils, Baghdad, DC, or even in the press) have little to do with reality on the ground… Granted, I will yield that I have no scientific/statistical basis for my opinion, but discussions in the south hardly ever leave me with the impression that people in the south are “pro federalism”. In fact, they associate federalism with division and division is an Iranian desire (or sometimes, American or Zionist).

    What people want is electricity/jobs/security. If federalism (or as I frequently state, decentralization) yields better living conditions for them – then they are for it. Local councils are moving more an more towards taking things into their own hands to provide services as it is their own skin that is on the line (as individuals – not their parties). Few (very few) believe that the US will withdraw.

    I am not sure what the debate above is all about? Is it just DC/outside concerns. Because I really do not see federalism as a driving force in the south. What this or that politician wants to do has nothing to do with the desire of the people. Now 0 if the intention is to bring debate about federalism to the forefront (as opposed to say lack of services/sectarianism or whatever) – then maybe the people will start forming more solid positions on the issue. But rarely does federalism come up in discussions, unless I raise the issue !!

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, thanks as always for your input, but I want to add that even though those people are “just politicians”, it is after all they who wrote the constitution and continue to pass legislation, and, importantly, since the local elections in January 2009 are able to call referendums on federalism on an “elitist basis”, i.e. based on a request from just one third of governorate council members. And this they can do again and again with a minimum of waiting between each effort.

    Of course, Basra already rejected this once, but if political leaders keep bringing up the federalism issue as some kind of panacea for Iraq, then it’s unlikely to go away no matter what the people think.

  16. azzam said

    Hi reidar… I do not believe that there is a single person in Iraq who knows how to write laws. The whole hodgepodge of laws is full of contradictions and ambiguities that can be interpreted (or better yet misinterpreted) will have to be untangled. Something like the constitutional convention of the US in 1787 … but like the US, we have to go through 12 years of hitting dead ends before we wake up to the fact that the whole thing needs to be revised…. The good news 6 years have gone since the 2005 referendum … 6 more years to go ☺ assuming of course that there will still be a democracy then !!!

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Looks as if the Sadrists of Maysan reject the federalism idea right now. They say it may form a pretext for a “longer occupation” by the Americans!

  18. Jason said

    Azzam, You do realize that here in the U.S. we are still having fierce arguments about the accumulated centralized power of the federal govt versus a return to greater decentralization to the 50 states, even after more than 200 years. That is one of the core planks of the Tea Party current that believes that Washington has grown fat, bloated, wasteful, and unresponsive to the people.

    And experience shows there is no bright line answer: Our country benefited by shifting to greater centralized power when necessary to save it from breaking apart over slavery in the 1800’s and righting the wrongs of minority oppression through the 1960’s. But we have also benefited from decentralization when it comes to allowing states to experiment with different policies on taxes and regulation, and even forcing them to compete at providing more effective govt at lower cost, i.e., our future leaders are more likely to come from booming TX free market economic model than the flailing CA big govt model.

    Reidar, that makes sense to me. I think U.S. leaders would have interpreted their brand of “federalism” as tantamount to a vote for succession on a par with South Carolina in the 1860′s at the start of our Civil War.

  19. azzam said

    Jason and all,
    I have not been following US politics closely since I came back to Iraq – so forgive my ignorance of Tea Party vs. Republican vs. Democrats. I know more about Iraq at this point, so I will limit my comments to Iraq.

    Iraq has been a center based state since its inception and people here (over the past 40 years) have become accustomed to taking orders from the center (and I am talking about the government officials). Everything is controlled by Baghdad and the people in Baghdad are disconnected from the reality on the ground (even in Baghdad, there are two realities – namely: the IZ vs. the “red zone”).

    The Iraqi constitution had good core thoughts – make oil, water, defense, foreign policy a center activity and decentralize the services (ala US). But the ministry of municipalities has yet to be eliminated (let us not speak about the ministers without portfolio). Not to mention other “useless” ministries. The free market has yet to take off and everybody in Iraq is constantly looking for employment with the government which they equate with “secured” jobs (similar to the civil service in the US). The effects of socialism will take generations to eliminate.

    In the 50’s, Iraq had a robust taxation system which supported government expenses and when oil income came into the coffers, the wise men of the time (nuri said, chadirchi, jamil, hashimi, madfai, etc.) decided to set aside the income to support infrastructure projects executed by ministries. The driving force in the economy was the private sector. That died in the age of “republic” and the take over of the reigns of power by the armed forces. The Baath party only made it worse.

    So the path to “over inflated government” in Iraq is different than that taken by the US, but the end result is the same. Baghdad “knows best” is an attitude common in Baghdad and that is now being rivaled by the local councils (which are learning to flex their powers). I have many contacts at the local levels in the south and I know that they are worried about their individual “reputations” despite their party affiliation. That is at least one benefit of the open list system adopted in the last elections.

    I see this latter force (self preservation) as the reason why many politicians at the local level are talking more and more about “regions”. To date, the desire for self control is removed from the “desire” of the people on the ground. The locals want to have better services – and once the politicians at the local level change their dialogue to explain to the locals that the end result is better planning of services, you may see more and more people on the ground demanding “regional” recognition. For now, the politicians live in a different sphere than the people they presume to represent.

    If Baghdad were smart (and I doubt that very much), they can “abort” talk of federalism/regional recognition by expediting decentralization. Baghdad should be in the business of distributing oil income to various governing councils so that they can then blame lack of progress on provision of services to local politicians. Of course that counters the desire of parties such as Da3wa who would want their “Islamism” to be the guiding principal of life and if they yield power to the locals then they would loose control.

    While there is corruption at the local level, I submit to you that corruption is far worse in Baghdad. The local councils have little experience in monitoring contracts or engineering design – so I see a potential service that the center can give to the locals in executing works. The decisions of which projects to sponsor should however be at the local level as the local politicians know the situation on the ground far better than those in Baghdad.

    Anyway, this is all practical stuff that should be set in policy (too bad that the higher council for strategies has yet to be a reality – because this kind of policy setting would be part and parcel of what it is supposed to do).

    The bottom line is that what you are seeing here in the talk about federalism and etc. is a struggle for power rather than a struggle for building a state. Nobody is thinking of Iraq in 10 years or the region in 10 years. Everybody is focused on how much power they can accumulate. Statesmen vs. politicians.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: