Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for October 15th, 2011

Nujayfi Uses the F Word Again

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 15 October 2011 12:29

In an interview with the BBC during his recent visit to Britain, parliament speaker and Iraqiyya politician Usama al-Nujayfi once more uttered the controversial “federalism” term. Nujayfi reportedly said that the Sunnis of Iraq feel they are being treated as second class citizens and if no improvement takes place many will feel compelled to call for the establishment of “geographically-based federal regions”.

Nujayfi’s comments constitute a careful modification of his previous reference to federalism (and even partition) as a possible option for the Sunnis of Iraq. In the first place, instead of indicating the possible establishment of a single, sectarian Sunni administrative unit, Nujayfi is foreshadowing calls for multiple federal regions in accordance with the constitutional provisions that enable governorates to transform themselves to standalone federal units or to merge with several governorates to form multi-governorate federal regions. Indeed, Nujayfi says he “favours” the establishment of such entities, which would mean a departure from the official Iraqiyya line which has tended to be sceptical to the establishment of additional federal entities in Iraq, but at the same time, especially more recently, surprisingly prepared to extend concessions to the one existing federal entity (Kurdistan). Secondly, Nujayfi this time emphasises Sunni commitment to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state as a whole, although it should be noted that his whole approach of talking on behalf of the Sunnis signifies a political mindset that nonetheless remains focused on sectarian subdivisions.

Still, on the whole, Nujayfi’s comments mainly add to the string of examples of federalism used as a threat by elite politicians rather than necessarily reflecting any strong popular commitment to the creation of such entities. To some extent, this reflects the exasperation of Iraqiyya leaders who have been unable to get the concessions they are seeking from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, partly thanks to their own haplessness. In this perspective, federalism comes across as a tool of opportunistic politicians, as also seen in some of the recent calls for federal regions by governorate council members in areas that do not enjoy any genuine tradition for making such demands, including Wasit. Unfortunately, the overly permissive law on the establishment of federal regions from 2006 enables such opportunism, since a mere third of governorate council members can call for a referendum on the creation of a federal region. This in turn can lead to useless referendums for initiatives that in reality do not enjoy support anywhere close to the levels needed to win a referendum.

Nonetheless, any growth of such calls for federal regions in the Sunni-majority governorates would create an interesting dilemma at the level of the central government. So far, Maliki has deliberately resisted initiatives for federal referendums initiated by politicians from his own State of Law coalition in several governorates south of Baghdad and most prominently Basra, which does have a consistent pro-federal tradition dating back to 2003. The main reason he has been able to contain these initiatives  (and, indeed, unconstitutionally obstruct them) is precisely the fact that they originate from his own partisans. A multiplication of similar calls from the Sunni-majority governorates would be more difficult to resist, and in turn could create domino effects in the Shiite areas that would altogether threaten Maliki’s ambition as a nominally nationalist and centralist strongman for Iraq.

At the same time, it is interesting that the calls for federalism come at a time with persistent reports about a deepening of the subdivisions within Iraqiyya, with precisely Nujayfi reported as one possible alternative point of gravity to Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiyya and his Wifaq movement. Whether the federalism threat is just a negotiating card in a strategy that ultimately aims at negotiations between Maliki and parts of Iraqiyya remains to be seen.

Posted in Basra and southern regionalism, Iraq - regionalism - general | 17 Comments »