Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for the ‘Basra and southern regionalism’ Category

Ahmad al-Sulayti, or, Maliki’s Basra Problem

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 September 2009 12:17

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

Ahmad al-Sulayti, member of Basra's provincial council for ISCI

The standardised Western narrative on Basra political developments over the past two years is as simple as it is deceptive: For a while, the people of Basra were terrorised by militia rule directed mainly by two “extremist” and “milita-affiliated” groups – Sadrists and the ruling Fadila party – but this sorry state of affairs came to an end in March 2008 by the heroic intervention of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,  variously celebrated as the “legalist”, the “secularist” and the “hater of the Iranians” depending on the writer’s closeness to the Bush administration. The militias disappeared, “the rule of law” was restored in Basra, and Maliki was rewarded by the Basrawis last January with a resounding win in the local elections.

The reality in Basra these days is somewhat different. Since the assumption of power by the new local government last April, reports of increasing Islamisation of Basra’s public sphere have intensified. Growing pressures towards Islamic dress code in public-sector workplaces have been reported, along with increased attempts at gender segregation in public spaces like parks and university areas. In August came a formal ban on the sale of alcohol.

Some of these moves have been championed by the very “secularist” list that Maliki’s alliance was supposed to represent, with the new governor Shaltagh Abbud in the lead. However, by far the greatest enthusiast for imposing strict Islamic order in Basra society – in fact, his zeal is such that other council members have had to restrain him lately – is from neither the Daawa nor the Sadrist camp. Rather, Shaykh Ahmad al-Sulayti is a leading figure of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and a preacher in Zubayr, traditionally a Sunni stronghold but since the 1960s increasingly populated by Shiites. He has been at the forefront of several of the recent legislative initiatives aimed at enhancing the observation of Islamic codes of conduct in Basra. Like many other Shiite activists he refers to the elusive “marjaiyya” as his source of authority; at his website this is operationalised with links to the “four great” top ulama of Iraq – the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the three other leading traditionalists of Najaf.

Basra may be in the middle of a water supply crisis but Sulayti’s current preoccupation is that he wants Basra’s men to grow their beards – to let the beard flow freely, as the Arabs say – a matter in which he is indeed supported by Sistani fatwas. It should be stressed that the way he has gone about this business in itself seems quite innocuous: Last week he introduced a law that would prevent public officials from directing employees to shave their beards, referring to the principle of individual freedom. But if his strategy thus seemed somewhat indirect (and not really different from, say, campaigns by Muslims in Europe for the right to wear the hijab at work), it was considered to go too far by the rest of the council (which had previously approved the ban on alcohol) and was cancelled a few days ago after having first been adopted.

Sulayti’s priorities reflect an interesting focus on rituals and dress code as the key to creating Islamic spaces, not entirely different from Sunni Islamist tendencies, but previously often thought to be the preserve of “radical Sadrists” as far as the Iraqi Shiite scene was considered. And whereas the Daawa-led coalition in Basra right now appears to be in a position to resist pressures from clerics like Sulayti, it is surprising how far in the direction of Islamisation they have ventured already, their rock-solid majority in the local council notwithstanding. More than anything the Basra developments speak volumes about the pressures that Maliki is facing from elements in the Shiite Islamist camp often considered “moderates” by the outside world, and hence the need for him to think carefully through the constellation of his political alliances in the next parliamentary elections. (Not that the Basra regionalism trend is going away either – a Basra member of his list, Mahmud al-Maksusi, recently reminded Iraqi parliamentarians about their promise to give Basra special status as Iraq’s “economic capital”.)

The situation in Basra has wider ramifications that are as fascinating as they are potentially explosive. At some point, members of the Iraqi public with an interest in Islamic law are likely to ask themselves why, given the theoretical oneness of Islamic law, is it legal to sell alcohol in Baghdad and not in Basra? More likely, they will not stop by asking themselves, but may well want to pose the question to other authorities that are supposed to be in the know about these issues, like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or the Federal Supreme Court, or, worse, perhaps both of them at the same time. Even more critically, some may want to know why the ban is not being implemented in the streets of Arbil and other parts of the Kurdistan Region, which just like the rest of the Iraq is subject to the constitutional imperative that no legislation may contradict the fundamentals of Islam. In this battle between Islamic law and secularism lies the conflict that could one day topple the project of Iraq as an Islamic federation, as set out in everything but the name in the 2005 constitution. And if the issue is not raised by the Iraqi public itself, it will under any circumstances force its way onto the agenda once the law on the composition of a new federal supreme court – promised in 2005 but considered a too sensitive subject until now – is to be debated in the Iraqi parliament.

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Maliki Makes a Concession to Basra Regionalism?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 10 May 2009 23:59

News reports from Basra suggest that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made an interesting concession to regionalist sentiment in the southern oil-export city of Basra. According to a statement by the spokesman of the new governor in Basra (who is also a Maliki ally), one half US dollar will henceforth be deducted from every barrel of oil exported from Basra and placed in a special development fund for Basra.

In some ways, the move could be seen as compatible with – and indeed inspired by – the 2005 constitution, where a general provision for a temporary positive discrimination of particularly deprived governorates through the use of oil revenue is found. Most statistical surveys single out Basra as the area of Iraq where living standards remain at the lowest level, in glaring contrast to the governorate’s position as the major oil producer and exporter in Iraq.

However, while the relevant constitutional clauses focus on deprivation, the link to Basra’s role as producer has other roots. The half-dollar deduction will meet a long-standing demand by Basra politicians that their area’s role as the kingpin of Iraq’s economy be reflected in some kind of special political privilege. Actually, back in December 2007, Basra politicians of the Fadila party proposed an arrangement which is remarkably similar to what is now being talked about as a governmental “decision”: Basra should receive one dollar per barrel of oil exported from the south. The difference between Fadila in 2007 and Maliki in 2009 of half a dollar can reasonably be attributed to the general decline in oil prices and a bit of bazaar-style haggling between centre and periphery.

While one incarnation of Basra regionalism was roundly rejected by the local citizens as they chose to ignore the federalism initiative headed by Wail Abd al-Latif in the winter of 2008/2009, the apparent decision of a centralist like Nuri al-Maliki to make concessions to local sentiment even after his particularly strong result in Basra in the January provincial elections testifies to its survival in other forms. One cannot help wondering, though, whether this is really a decision that the prime minister is in a position to make without at least a little consultation with the Iraqi parliament?

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Basra, the Failed Gulf State, Part II: Wail Abd al-Latif Concedes Defeat

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 17 January 2009 17:42

Wail Abd al-Latif, the chief protagonist of the campaign to transform Basra into a standalone federal region, has told Iraqi radio that his project has failed. While Abd al-Latif did not know the exact numbers of signatures collected since the legally fixed month-long campaign period started on 15 December 2008 (and at a time when the Iraqi elections commission has not yet released any results and there were even rumours to the effect that the deadline had been extended with a few days), this declaration by the principal advocate of the scheme seems to be a certain indication that the goal of mustering 140,000 signatures in favour of the project – the precondition for a referendum – is unachievable at present… Full story here.

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The Candidate Lists Are Out: Basra More Fragmented, Sadrists Pursuing Several Strategies?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 22 December 2008 2:22

So far, it has been difficult to discuss the upcoming provincial elections in Iraq because only the names of the parties and the party leaders have been made public. But now the Iraqi elections commission has published the candidate lists for individual governorates, showing which parties will run where, as well as the names of all persons on each list… Full story here.

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The Basra Federalism Initiative Enters Stage Two

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 15 December 2008 10:42

Today is the scheduled start date for the second phase of the Basra federalism initiative that was launched in November and that aims at transforming the Basra governorate into a federal region with a legal status similar to Kurdistan. During the course of the next thirty days, the supporters of the project need to obtain 140, 939 signatures (one tenth of the Basra electorate) in favour of their scheme before they are allowed to hold a referendum. Shortly after 14 January 2009 (and shortly before the 31 January local elections) the result will be made public, and, if the initiative is successful, a referendum could be held as early as in February, depending on legal interpretations… Full story here.

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Signs of Competition in the Struggle about Basra and Federalism?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 19 November 2008 15:12

The scheme for the transformation of Basra to a federal region has passed its first hurdle after the Iraqi elections commission scrutinised the first submission of petitions demanding a referendum and certified them as representing more than the 2% of the electorate required to launch the process towards a referendum. The Basra federalists now face the far more challenging task of mustering the 10% needed to actually call a popular vote about Basra’s future. Simultaneously, there are signs that other pro-federal forces in and around Basra are still considering a bid that would compete with the project for a single-governorate federal entity based on Basra… Full story here.

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An Initiative to Create the Federal Region of Basra Is Launched

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 11 November 2008 21:21

The Basra parliamentarian and former member of Wifaq Wail Abd al-Latif has announced that a petition requesting a referendum for the creation of the federal region of Basra (Iqlim al-Basra) as a standalone entity has been submitted to the Iraqi electoral commission, featuring 34,800 signatures. The petitioners believe that this number is sufficient to meet the requirement that at least 2% of the governorate voters should sign the initial petition (this would correspond to a total Basra voting population of 1,740,000). Full story here.

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The Fadila Party Criticises the Basra Operations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 27 March 2008 17:29

[Postscript to The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra ]

After a long silence on the Basra operations, the parliamentary bloc of the Fadila party has within the past hours released a statement criticising the impact on civilian life in Basra and asking for an end to the operations “as soon as possible”. This is not quite as hostile as the reactions by the Sadrists, but it underscores internal Shiite divisions regarding control of Basra and shows how little room for manoeuvre Nuri al-Maliki really has. His remaining allies are ISCI, Daawa and the independent Shiites, but neither he nor the independents share ISCI’s preference for a weak central government. Unless Maliki is able to secure defections from ISCI (or a change of their policy in the federalism question) this seems to be a poor basis on which to build a coalition.

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Debating Devolution in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 10 March 2008 16:58

In early August 2007, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, made headlines with striking comments to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. The cleric revealed in an interview with Sam Dagher that “a massive operation” was underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be named the “South of Baghdad Region,” and projected to encompass all nine majority-Shi‘i governorates south of the Iraqi capital. Saghir claimed that his party had already drafted detailed plans for how such a super-province would be governed — plans of such importance to Iraq and the region that there was “no room for misadventures”… Full story here.

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Suffering, Oil, and Ideals of Coexistence: Non-Sectarian Federal Trends in the Far South of Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 13 December 2007 20:22

Among the numerous fallacies that have become widespread in analyses of today’s Iraq is the notion that the Shiites of the country are unified in demanding the establishment of a sectarian federal entity, a Shiite super-state. And even though some studies at least acknowledge the internal Shiite division between anti-federal Iraqi nationalist and supporters of federalism, few bother to examine important sub-divisions inside the pro-federal camp. In many accounts there simply is only one Shiite federal vision of the future: iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub (the Region of the Center and the South), covering all the nine Shiite-majority governorates to the south of the Iraqi capital. Full story here.

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