Maybe it was the physical dislocation of the Iraqi cabinet and Iraqi journalists to the southern port town of Basra that was the reason. Perhaps it had to do with a desire on the part of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to somehow please his constituency in Basra at a time when pro-federal Sunni movements have forced him to take a negative stance on the creation of new federal regions generally. Whatever it was, Iraqi politicians and journalists produced an amazing array of misleading statements subsequent to the first meeting of the Maliki government outside the capital Baghdad yesterday.
In what appeared to be direct quotes from normally reliable people like deputy PM Hussein al-Shahristani and government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, there were suggestions that not only had Basra been granted some kind of special status with minister rank for its governor and enhanced spending powers compared with other governorates. Some even suggested that contractual powers for the oil sector were also included:
وقال الشهرستاني في تصريح صحفي ان :” مجلس الوزراء قرر في جلسة عقدها اليوم في البصرة منح المحافظ خلف عبد الصمد صلاحيات وزير فيما يتعلق بصرف المبالغ الخاصة بالمشاريع الخدمية الى جانب ابرام العقود النفطية في خطوة ينشد منها المجلس توسيع صلاحيات الحكومة المحلية في المحافظة “.
واشار الشهرستاني الى ان ” قرار المجلس اعطى المحافظ صلاحية التوقيع على صرف مبالغ تتراوح ما بين 50 الى 100 مليون دولار والتي كانت سلفا حصرا بالوزير ، كما مكن المجلس المحافظ من احالة المشاريع وابرام العقود مع الشركات (بضمنها ا النفطية) دون الرجوع الى الوزارات المعنية بالامر “.
Many observers were skeptical, but for the next 24 hours the stories made their way through Iraqi media anyway – complete with parliamentarians commenting for and against the assumed cabinet decision. After all, the Iraqi cabinet already violates so many fundamental features of the Iraqi constitution (including the right to form federal regions) that it wouldn’t necessarily be shocking for it to introduce yet another infraction, however outlandish.
In the end, though, it was a false alarm. In the more down-to-earth report by parliament spokesman Dabbagh today, there is no mention of the oil sector, and hardly any suggestion that Basra was given special status – the reported spending cap was made to apply to all governorates. In fact, in the Dabbagh summary, the only special privilege granted to Basra is an apparently simplified governmental approval process for certain kinds of projects. Whether this really constitutes differential treatment in practice remains to be seen, but it is a lot less radical than the initial media headlines suggested:
7.الموافقة على زيادة سقف الحد الأعلى لصلاحية لجان المشتريات في كافة المحافظات الى (100) مليون دينار بدلاً من (50) مليون دينار ورفع صلاحية المحافظ في الإحالة الى (100) مليار دينار. والإيعاز الى محافظة البصرة بعرض المشروعات المحالة من قبلها دون إستحصال موافقة اللجان الوزارية المختصة على اللجان المختصة القطاعية لتدقيقها وإستحصال الموافقات الاصولية بشأنها وعلى اللجان الوزارية القطاعية (لجان الخدمات والشؤون الاقتصادية والطاقة والتعليم) النظر في المشاريع المحالة عليها من الوزارات والمحافظات خلال (14) يوماً من تاريخ استلام الطلب في اللجنة وبخلاف ذلك تعتبر موافقة اللجنة حاصلة ما لم تبادر اللجنة لطلب معلومات إضافية عن المشروع من الوزارة أو المحافظة خلال تلك الفترة وترسل طلبات الموافقة على الإحالة الى اللجان الوزارية المختصة مباشرة دون الحاجة الى إرسالها عن طريق الأمانة العامة لمجلس الوزراء من قبل الجهة المعنية وباليد لتسريع الإجراءات
What this whole little affair has revealed, however, are the large gaps in the legislation regulating centre–periphery relations in Iraq – as well as considerable ambiguities in the Iraqi constitution itself.
Everyone talks about the “spending cap” for governorates, but where exactly has that been legislated? Is it in the provincial powers law of 2008 or in the annual budgets?? This problem in turn relates to the fact that the provincial powers law of 2008 did not really do much to demarcate responsibilities between governorates and ministries in so-called “shared” areas of government (articles 112 and 114 of the constitution). What it did, first and foremost, was to create a sack-and-appoint procedure whereby local politicians were given a say in the appointment of high-level officials of the central administration working in their governorate (health, police, education etc.).
Similarly, today, the Kurdish MP Bayzid Hassan expressed outrage about the alleged cabinet decision to give Basra contracting powers for the oil sector. This “has to be legislated”, he demanded. But his outrage is misguided. According to article 112, federal regions and producing governorates enjoy exactly the same rights as far as oil is concerned. Basically, if KRG can sign – and that is a big if, depending on how one reads the rest of 112 – Maysan can sign. There is no other possible reading, regions and producing governorates have equal constitutional status as regards energy (and residual powers, article 115), period. Incidentally, this means that if any of the current draft versions of the oil and gas law actually passes in parliament, it will be unconstitutional from the get-go since all versions bestow contracting rights on federal regions but not on producing governorates.
Most commenters dismissed the story about Basra contracting rights as unrealistic, not least given the past record of centralism on the part of Shahristani in particular. What the episode actually highlighted was yet another fundamental contradiction between the Iraq outlined in the constitution of 2005 and the way the country actually works.