Shahristani and Maliki in Federalism Crossfire
Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 September 2011 17:03
A recent statement by the governorate council of Wasit had an extraordinary tone: The council “rejected” the appointment of Vice Premier Hussein al-Shahristani as acting electricity minister (after Raad al-Ani “resigned” subsequent to being forced out), alleging that Shahristani had created problems for Wasit in the past through his opposition to several electricity schemes and his management of the disputed Ahdab oilfield, where a Chinese company is involved. The conflict between the local council and the oil ministry (previously headed by Shahristani) has been festering since 2009 and includes serious accusations by local politicians for example to the effect that Chinese prisoners are doing underpaid work at the oilfield.
The statement would seem like an unprecedented attempt by a provincial council to interfere in the workings of the central government. But it is very real, and reflects intense intra-Shiite disagreement ranging from the very personal to key political issues like the question of the basic structure of the Iraqi state. At the time the Wasit federalism project first emerged around June 2010, it was reportedly supported by ISCI and resisted by Sadrists and State of Law, with the rest of the council (the Shahristani bloc, the Iraqi constitutional party, Iraqiyya and independents) uncommitted. Unfortunately, the few existing recent press reports on the subject are somewhat ambiguous in that they identify a key pro-federal leader as “Mahdi Husayn al-Musawi, deputy speaker of the Wasit governorate assembly”. This seems to be a mix-up of names since the governor is Mahdi Hussein al-Zubaydi (State of Law) whereas the deputy speaker is Mahdi Ali Jabbar al-Musawi (same bloc but previously the Tanzim al-Iraq faction and with a track record of conflict with Shahristani over Ahdab in the past). In any case, these developments clearly suggest that disagreement over federalism is creating challenges for Maliki as well as for Shahristani in Wasit. It is noteworthy that also in Wasit, ISCI is apparently playing a lead role in forcing the rest of the Shiites towards a remorseless approach in the de-Baathification question, in April this year even challenging a decision by the de-Baathification commission to reinstate former Baathists in the education sector.
Similar pro-federal noises have been coming intermittently from Maysan, Karbala, Najaf and Babel, but nowhere is the pro-federal tendency more evident and persistent than in Basra. In particular, Jawad al-Buzuni from Maliki’s own State of Law bloc has been going far in calling for the government to go ahead with a referendum on the question of creating a federal region as demanded by members of the provincial council, claiming it is the only way of solving the current political impasse and indeed of saving the current government. The new federalists of Basra and Wasit fraternise on Facebook with like-minded people as far north as in Nineveh; some of these new federalists even see uni-governorate federalism as an antidote to the dominance of the religious parties.
It is noteworthy, however, that despite all these challenges – on top of the fact that the Iraqi government is breaking Iraqi law by not making the legally mandated moves to hold referendums that have been called for – even the most pointed attacks at Maliki still seem unable to gather the numerical momentum required to make them real. Symptomatically, perhaps, today, the independent deputy Sabah al-Saadi declared that he has been gathering signatures for a law proposal involving restricting the premier’s terms to two parliamentary cycles, along with special rules for a caretaker ministry in the event of withdrawal of confidence in the cabinet. The targeting of Maliki could not have been clearer, and yet the petition only managed to marshal the signatures of 115 deputies, far below the magical 163 threshold required for doing anything significant with regard to the status of the current government.
In Wasit itself, after an initial open rupture between Maliki and Shahristani over the governorship in February and March and the creation of a challenging bloc consisting of ISCI, the Sadrists, Iraqiyya and the Iraqi constitutional party in April, there have been reports since early August of a reconstituted bloc of 19 more centralist Shiites aggressively opposed to the ISCI-led speaker of the council, reportedly consisting of State of Law, the Shahristani bloc of independents and White Iraqiyya, the (often Shiite) breakaway faction of Iraqiyya. There is a certain geopolitical symbolism to the fact that it is an oilfield operated by a Chinese company that seems to serve as glue for this regrouped alliance of Shiite centralists!
For its part, State of Law has indicated a willingness to pursue a project that would obligate the Iraqi presidency to sign execution orders within 15 days, which would constitute an unusually blunt attack on the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, usually a Maliki ally but also a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Which in turn just seems to emphasise the status quo as the most likely scenario going forward, not least since the Kurds have now made clear that the recently-reported agreement in the Iraqi government on an oil and gas law in fact did not enjoy their support, thereby underlining the persistence of a problem in relations between themselves and Maliki that goes back to 2007.
In other news, the Iraqi parliament is back on the job after the long Eid recess and has adopted an ambitious agenda for Thursday: The second reading of the contentious national council for high policies bill, and a vote, no less, on the equally disputed new parliamentary bylaws . We’ll see.
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