Iraq and Gulf Analysis

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Small Victories for Maliki in Parliament

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 5 January 2012 14:22

The Iraqi national assembly was it usual self today, with the predictable assortment of idiosyncrasies that are typical of Iraqi politics. However, for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, there was some good news.

This includes the simple fact that the parliamentary sessions continue to take place despite the boycott by the secular Iraqiyya party. Today, once more, signs of tensions between Maliki’s own Shiite Islamist State of Law bloc and the Kurds at one point threatened the quorum of the session, but an amicable resolution was found and the session could resume, technically as an “extraordinary session” since it had been officially terminated during the preceding tension.

With relative peace vis-à-vis the Kurds, Maliki is probably satisfied with the fact that some Iraqiyya members opted to take part in the session, which altogether counted 192 members, thus comfortably above the quorum threshold at 163 and not that much different from the normal attendance level in 2011. Reportedly, those Iraqiyya members present numbered between six and eight. Over and above that, they included at least three deputies who say they are forming a new bloc within Iraqiyya, opposed to calls for Sunni-area federalism and sympathetic to Shiites that have defected from Iraqiyya in the south. These three deputies all nominally belonged to the Iraqiyyun bloc of parliament speaker  Usama al-Nujayfi in the past, and one of them was formerly a prominent advocate of a majority government between Iraqiyya and State of Law.

Conceptually, then, this new tendency seems similar to the White Iraqiyya breakaway faction of Iraqiyya which is reckoned as openly pro-Maliki. (Equally important is the fact that they remain separate and have not joined White Iraqiyya.) Additional Iraqiyya attendants in parliament today reportedly included members of the Hall (Karbuli) faction. It is noteworthy that the assembly today managed to agree on additional judges to the de-Baathification appellate court, which had proved troublesome in the past.

In the past, White Iraqiyya has sometimes been dismissed as “Shiite Iraqiyya”, which is not entirely plausible since it also includes vocal Sunni members from Nineveh. Today’s developments stress that there are more Sunnis in the north that are prepared to speak the language of anti-federalism and could be potential allies to Maliki in the north. They come at a time when there are conflicting reports about the exact status of Iraqiyya ministers boycotting cabinet meetings, with some reports suggesting that certain individual ministers are prepared to return. Again, the Hall faction is mentioned as a possible dissenter to the general Iraqiyya line.

To Maliki, this is the ideal scenario: Parliament continues to function, not terribly effective, but enough to get some things done and preventing a formal disintegration of democratic politics. Maliki may well be hoping that similar things could happen at the level of the cabinet , since a situation with too many acting ministers unapproved by parliament in the long run would threaten one of the most basic principles in a parliamentary democracy – that of ministerial answerability to the national assembly.  

It is noteworthy that all these developments point in a different direction than the doom and gloom associated with the Iraqiyya boycott and renewed violence today. Importantly, and often overlooked by Western policy-makers, this is a potential avenue of rapprochement that has nothing to do at all with the Arbil agreement.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 45 Comments »

The Economics of Federalism in the Iraqi 2012 Draft Budget

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 9 December 2011 13:28

The Iraqi government has presented its draft for the annual 2012 budget law.

In light of the recent surge of interest in federalism in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq, the government’s approach to federalism issues in next year’s budget is of particular interest. The allocation of money to central government ministries, ordinary governorates, and federal regions can tell us a lot about the facts of Iraqi federalism in a setting where the legal and constitutional frameworks remain hazy.

What is clear from the 117 trillion Iraqi dinars budget is that it is the existing federal region – the Kurdistan Regional Government – that continues to get the best deal from the allocation of money. The budget envisages that Kurdistan oil exports will amount to 175,000 barrels per day in 2012, which is about 6.7% of the anticipated total Iraqi daily production of 2,6 million barrels. By way of contrast, the KRG will receive a 17% allocation of the expenditure budget (around 16 trillion ID) after the deduction of so-called “sovereign” spending covering mainly external defence and foreign diplomatic service. By increasing its exports, the KRG contribution to the national income is up from about 4.5% in 2011, but it is perfectly clear that the Kurds remain dependent on a big subsidy from Baghdad.

Compare the 16 trillion ID Kurdish share of the budget with what goes to the ordinary governorates. The oil-producing governorates will continue to get their one dollar per exported barrel fee, but this is not expected to make up more than 1.7 trillion ID in total, or just a tenth of the total Kurdish budget share. This despite the fact that a governorate like Basra contributes the lion’s share of Iraq’s total 2.6 million bpd production. Similarly, the pilgrimage fees that were introduced in 2010  will produce a mostly symbolic contribution to the governorates of Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Salahaddin. (In 2011 budget this income was given to the border governorates instead.) Additionally, the investment headings for all of Iraq amount to no more than 30 trillion ID in total for the entire country.

It should be clear that in seeking a federal status, many governorate politicians outside the KRG (such of those of Salahaddin) are probably envious of the generous allocations to the KRG in the budget. This in turn highlights the numerous problems related to the discrepancies between how centre–periphery relations are described in the Iraqi constitution and how things actually work. Constitutionally speaking, there should be a central government role in areas of shared government such as health and education. However, in these areas the Kurds actually maintain full sovereignty and do not pay for central government services. They are able to do this because their autonomy (and institutional capacity) has evolved gradually since 1992. If Salahaddin and Basra were to become federal regions in the near future, they would have to build their own health and education sectors from scratch if they were to maintain the Kurdish argument about paying for “sovereign expenses” only.

The budget signals a central government intention to deliver more of the same in 2012: Generous allowances to the Kurds and a relatively centralised government formula for the rest of Iraq south of Kurdistan. Is it realistic to predict the secession of Kurdistan when their current 6.7% of the Iraqi oil production gets closer to the 17% rate with which their share of the expenditure budget is currently determined?

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 5 Comments »

Salahaddin Leaders Turn to Talabani to Solve Federalism Impasse

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 24 November 2011 13:11

The 15-day limit for the central government to ask the elections commission to arrange a federalism referendum for Salahaddin has now expired.

The Iraqi government is breaking the law on region formation by not arranging the referendum, but in the past similar requests from the Shiite-majority governorates of Basra and Wasit have been quietly shelved by the central government – and without much in the way of protests. Salahaddin, however, is opting for a different course. Provincial council leaders now say they are contacting Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, to make him act in his capacity as “defender of the constitution” and to impel the government to make the necessary legal steps.

In so doing, it is noteworthy that the Salahaddin leaders are hinting at the possibility of future claims before the federal supreme court, but that they are also emphasising that they want to exhaust all other options first. To some extent, this is probably a way of masking a reality in which the supreme court is seen as the tool of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whereas Talabani, as a Kurd – and despite his personal good ties to Maliki – is seen as a federalist first and foremost. For that reason, there is an expectation that he will be sympathetic to federalism initiatives in other parts of Iraq more generally.

Constitutionally speaking, the president of the republic has a theoretical responsibility for ensuring compliance with the constitution but almost no specific constitutional powers in this regard. Even though the president has managed to carve out a certain niche as a quasi-appellate court in cases involving the death sentence, it would be wrong to see the presidency as an alternate constitutional court. What Talabani can do, however, is to act as an informal arbiter, perhaps on the pattern of what was earlier this year when the implementation of the Arbil framework became a matter of dispute. Back then, the secular Iraqiyya party made a point out of turning to Talabani, rather than to Maliki, in an attempt at resolving the remaining issues.

Talabani will be tested on this issue at a point in time when relations between Maliki and the Kurds are already strained because of the Exxon Mobil deals for KRG-held areas including disputed territories. The Maliki camp has been firmly opposed to the Salahaddin federalism bid, but it is hard to see how they can plausibly delay the process in a legal way. The constitutional and legal aspects of the case are so crystal clear that any discovery of new problems by the supreme court will raise even more doubts about its neutrality than before.

There is however one possible reason Talabani might be less forthcoming towards the Salahaddin federalists than they have been hoping for. A new idea in Kurdish circles is that article 140 of the constitution on disputed territories should be implemented before the creation of any new federal region. Also this week, it is being reported that Talabani himself has sent parliament a bill that would regulate the settlement of administrative boundaries in the disputed territories. These ideas in themselves have no constitutional basis and like so much else in Iraqi politics are the concoctions of politicians. Nonetheless, such claims may serve as an indication of a possible new preference in Kurdish circles for bilateral deal-making with Maliki on article 140 instead of or before a general move towards the comprehensive federalisation of Iraq.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 12 Comments »

The Exxon Mobil Bombshell

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 14 November 2011 19:24

So far, conspiracy theorists alleging that American appetite for oil was the real factor behind the Iraq War – perhaps even in a plot intended to partition the country for the benefit of US oil interests – haven’t quite been able to fit their theory to the empirical realities. Until now, American companies have not been particularly prominent in terms of their involvement on the ground in “the new Iraq”. Also, generally speaking, most of the contracts of the IOCs signed with Baghdad come across as modest in terms of profit rates for the Western companies compared to what goes to Iraq.

Enter Exxon Mobil and its recent Kurdistan dealings. The story began in the shape of rumours last week but has now been confirmed by a sufficient number of sources that it can be treated as facts: Exxon has cut separate exploration deals with the Kurds, circumventing Baghdad and thereby potentially jeopardising its existing service contract with Baghdad for the supergiant West Qurna field near Basra. The move could also signify the entrance of “big oil” into Kurdistan after a period of “small oil” dominance (including, most recently, former BP chief Tony Hayward in his new role in Genel). 

The bid comes at the most critical juncture imaginable. For the first time in the history of Iraq, the central government is threatened by federalism movements in both Sunni and Shiite areas, alongside the existing challenge from the established Kurdish region. Today saw further unprecedented moves in this direction in parliament where Usama al-Nujayfi, the speaker of the national assembly, organised an impromptu conference on federalism and decentralisation issues. The conference – attended by representatives of five Sunni-majority provinces and reportedly boycotted by the ten Shiite-majority ones – concluded with a statement that highlighted such broad issues as the constitutional right to form regions, the need to reform the provincial powers law of 2008 and even the question of the impartiality of the Iraqi judiciary.

Whether Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in this critical situation will bend to the pressure from Exxon Mobil and give up his policy of blacklisting companies that do separate deals with Kurdistan remains to be seen.

A consistent response would involve kicking Exxon out of its Qurna contract which is shared with Shell (which in turn has not concluded any deals with the Kurds). Maliki has so far been able to resist federalism initiatives from fellow Shiites in Basra and Wasit, and has recently indicated a possible judicial approach that could create delays for the latest Salahaddin autonomy bid. Maliki does not really enjoy the parliamentary backing required to act so boldly, but as long as his enemies are unable to sack him due to their own disunity there is plenty of room for manoeuvre for the prime minister regardless of the parliamentary situation.

If on the other hand Maliki does feel threatened by the growing number of unhappy oppositionists he will likely turn to deal-making with the Kurds in order to ensure his own survival. In that respect, bargains over oil may perhaps be an easier route than a sell-out on Kirkuk (which is certain to meet with opposition even in Shiite Islamist circles that are normally friendly to the Kurds). Taking a pragmatic approach to the latest Exxon deals in Kurdistan might be one aspect of such an approach.

The international dimensions of these developments are particularly hard to grasp. It seems remarkable that a company of Exxon’s stature should run such an incredible risk with West Qurna had there not been some kind of deal-making and assurances under the table.  Could the move have been clarified with the Obama administration? Right now, it seems Washington cannot quite make up its mind as to whether to slap Maliki in the face or try to put a gloss on the whole situation. It is noteworthy that according to Kurdish sources, the deals with Exxon were signed on 18 October 2011 whereas 21 October was the date of Obama’s “total withdrawal” speech on Iraq. Would Washington really want to put all its eggs in basket of central-northern Iraqi energy when even the most optimistic scenarios for the Kurdish areas (including the projected Nabucco pipeline) dwindle by comparison with the south? The geopolitical risk of those fields falling under ever firmer Iranian control is certainly considerable.

The net effect of the Exxon Mobil dealings are easier to evaluate: They make Iraq look more fragmented, vulnerable and susceptible to foreign influences than for a long time.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Oil in Iraq | 41 Comments »

The New Federalism Jurisprudence of the State of Law Alliance

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 11 November 2011 19:13

Just when you thought things could not get more farcical in Iraq, the so-called State of Law Alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has provided yet more fodder for potential pun-makers.

Back on 5 November, in a comment on the recent Salahaddin federalism initiative, Walid al-Hilli of State of Law declared that there were problems with the bid relating to article 6 of the law on region formation. According to Hilli, the article in question was “unclear” with respect to the creation of new regions through the transformation of a single governorate to a new federal region.

One could have dismissed the comment by Hilli as a slip of the tongue were it not for the fact that something almost identical was repeated by Mariam al-Rayyis, also close to Maliki, in press comments yesterday.  According to Rayyis, article 6 only relates to governorates wanting to join an existing region! In her view the law must be amended by parliament before the current Salahaddin project can go ahead (she specifically suggests Salahaddin can only join Kurdistan).

Let’s look at article 6.

يكون الاستفتاء ناجحاً إذا حصل على أغلبية المصوتين من الناخبين في كل محافظة من المحافظات التي تروم الانضمام إلى إقليم

Okay, so the referendum is successful if it gains a majority in “each governorate of the governorates wishing to join/combine into a region”. In other words, it was written with reference to a case of multiple governorates forming a region. Arguably, the case of single-governorate formation should have been mentioned separately.  But to deduct from this that single-governorate formation should be governed by different rules is absurd. Article 6 is the sole article that defines the modalities for a successful referendum and it was clearly intended to cover all instances of region formation including single-governorate ones, not least since such single-governorate regions were among the most likely scenarios in 2006 when the law was drafted, for example in Basra. The idea – implicit in the comments from State of Law politicians  – that there should somehow be a stricter threshold for a single governorate to become a federal region than for a combination of governorates (which after all would constitute an even more radical change) just defies common sense.  

The comment by Rayyis which tries to differentiate between annexing governorates to existing regions and everything else is even more flawed: She seems to suggest that article 6 only applies to cases of multiple governorates wishing to join an existing region all in a single referendum! This scenario is not even discussed in article 2 of the law which merely envisages the addition of single governorates to existing regions. It should be fairly clear that the “region” mentioned in article 6 can also be the result of non-federated governorates joining together in an act of federalisation.

The bottom line is as long as the Salahaddin federalists remembered to make a simple request for a referendum (in addition to their dubious “declaration of a region”) the bid will be legal and the government is under an obligation to carry out the requested referendum. Maliki allies have tried to claim that there is somehow a difference between a similar request from Basra and the Salahaddin bid, with the suggestion that the Salahaddin federalism scheme is intended to provide refuge to Baathists, is not conducted in coordination with the central government and even marginalises the Shiite minority! The fact is that in legal terms, the two bids, Salahaddin and Basra, are one hundred per cent identical. Many supporters of the Salahaddin bid are in fact anti-Baathists and there are Baathists in exile that have denounced the whole federalism project. If Maliki continues to treat Basra and Salahaddin differently, then it means he is effectively holding the Sunnism of the majority of the Salahaddin people against them.

Perhaps the new focus on article 6 at least is an indication that Maliki eventually understood that he could not forever obstruct the Salahaddin bid with vague allegations of Baathism. But the sloppy language of that article is such a silly and contrived basis for an attempt to derail a project that clearly satisfies the constitutional criteria for a federalism initiative. This is however not untypical: During the past few days Maliki has also declared that ex-Baathists should publicly denounce the Baath party as a condition for staying in their jobs in the government sector. Once more, he is making up the rules himself.

Reportedly, Maliki is now seeking the counsel of the federal supreme court on these matters. Let’s hope that unlike other previous episodes, the court (or the consultative assembly of state) will know exactly what answer to give him.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 14 Comments »

More Federalism Chaos

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 4 November 2011 18:56

There is so much fuss surrounding the renewed federalism debate in Iraq that it is really hard to know where to start.

Maybe a suitable vantage point is nomenclature: Can the Iraqi press please understand that no one can “declare” themselves a federal region in the way Salahaddin tried to do? Iraqi media keep talking about the “declaration” of federal regions, ignoring the fact that the most the governorate council can do is to ask the government to conduct a referendum.

Other oddities can be found in the arguments for and against the emerging federalism bid. One Iraqiyya figure claims that “everyone” supports the Salahaddin bid, including all the districts.

 أأكّدَ فرحانُ العوض المرشح للبرلمان العراقي عن محافظة صلاح الدين ان قرار مجلس المحافظة إقامة اقليم فدرالي، تم بموافقة جميع ابناء المحافظة بجميع أقضيتها وشتى أطيافها وألوانها

Again, this is irrelevant. Sub-entities may count in Spanish federalism but they don’t count in Iraqi federalism. The referendum will be a straightforward majority vote counted at the governorate level.

As for the opponents of the Salahaddin federalism bid, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki still continues to produce statements that are legally and constitutionally flawed. He labels the Salahaddin bid as neo-Baathism in disguise, ignoring the fact that the law does not specify ideological preconditions for launching a federal region. In other words,  it is the prerogative of the people of Salahaddin to go federal and try to grow bananas if they so desire.  Similarly, Maliki continues to talk about “conditions” for federal regions to emerge in concert with the government, and even alludes to the “pre-occupation” of the central government to build security at the moment!

إقامة الأقاليم حق دستوري لكن الدولة مشغولة حاليا ببناء البلد وتحقيق الاستقرار الأمني

Again, these are not valid arguments against implementing the law on forming regions, which Maliki has previously refused to do with respect to bids from Basra and Wasit.

Additional confusion has been thrown into the mix because of unprecedented talk in some circles of Sunni regions joining the Kurdish areas. For their part, some Kurds have said they would like to see the implementation of article 140 of the constitution on the disputed territories before any region-formation, which again is an idea that enjoys no legal basis.

What seems certain is that Maliki is now coming under pressure on federalism issues from fellow Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis alike. That is an unprecedented situation which will add further pressure on his minority-government survival strategy unless he either manages to win over some substantial Sunni and secular allies or gives the Kurds some more of what they want.

Posted in Federalism in Sunni-Majority Areas of Iraq, Iraq - regionalism - general | 24 Comments »

Welcome to Malikistan

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 29 October 2011 17:39

During a television interview today, amid accusations of exaggerated de-Baathification and Sunni federalist initiatives, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has added some interesting perspective on his own vision of Iraq.

With respect to the recent wave of arrests, Maliki tried to make the point that the majority of the arrests took place south of Baghdad rather than in the north, implying in other words that most of those arrested were Shiites and not Sunnis. That should be fine as long as those arrested are actually charged with specific crimes rather than punished for their links to the Baath in the past.

Regarding de-Baathification of teachers in Salahaddin, Maliki suggested that those dismissed were former intelligence officials (in which case the sackings would be legal). He nonetheless announced the formation of an investigatory committee, which is a strange ad hoc move. There already is a special appeals institution for de-Baathification, although it has been inoperative for a long time due to the failure of parliament to agree on some of the replacement judges.

The money paragraph in the interview is the following one, on federalism for Salahaddin:

وأشار المالكي إلى أن “ما حصل في صلاح الدين طلب وليس إعلان عن إقليم”، لافتا إلى أن “هذا الطلب سيقدم الى مجلس الوزراء الذي سيرفضه كونه قائم على خلفية طائفية وحماية البعثيين وخلفيات أخرى غير واضحة”.

First, Maliki clarifies that what has transpired in Salahaddin is not really a declaration of a federal region, since this is not legally possible. This is correct, and thankfully the electoral commission has also contributed on a clarification on the subject, underlining that the governorate can only make the first step towards the creation of a federal region and not simply declare it. But what follows is complete nonsense. Maliki says the government will reject the request for a referendum because it “is based on a sectarian grounds, intended to offer protection of Baathists, and on other unclear grounds”!

This comment by Maliki is tantamount to pissing on the constitution. As long as they stay faithful to the procedures laid down in the law for forming regions, Iraqis can create federal regions for whatever reasons they want. No one has the right to enquire about the motives as long as the modalities are done correctly. If Maliki wants to change that – and there are good reasons for restricting federalism options so as to avoid a constant string of useless federalism attempts – he must work to change the constitution.

It is a sorry sign of the state of play in Iraq that both opponents and proponents of the Salahaddin federal region are now making up their own laws.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 15 Comments »

In Salahaddin, a Confused Federalism Bid

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 27 October 2011 17:38

The most spectacular fallout from the recent de-Baathification escalation is the declaration by the Salahaddin governorate council today that in protest against arrests and sackings they have “established Salahhadin as an administrative and economic region within a unified Iraq”.

The move, while clearly reflecting a growing pro-federal trend in some Sunni circles, is confused, illegal and unconstitutional. Firstly, the council does not have the powers to declare anything of this kind. A third of its members can submit a request to the government to hold a referendum on a federal status – but it is the people, not the politicians, that ultimately decide.

Second, the council members seem to be making a point that they had a two-thirds majority in the council. What are they trying to tell us? Is this a flawed attempt at reading the law on the formation of regions? The only special status granted to a bid by two-thirds of the governorate council members in the law on forming regions is that it will automatically trump alternate federal combinations in the case of multiple competing schemes (say, some want to have Mosul plus Salahaddin to form one region) and thus avoid a pre-referendum poll (istibyan).

It should be noted that similar language about “declaring regions” has previously noted in places like Maysan, but it later died down again. The bottom line is that the only thing the governorate council can do is to request a referendum. According to the law, the government should automatically (and promptly!) enable them to hold such a referendum by activating the elections commission. Basra and Wasit have submitted such requests in the past without any response from the central government. The significant aspect of the Salahhadin bid is that it could put more pressure on Maliki to allow federal referendums from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north. But to get there, the politicians of Salahhadin must first submit a request within the existing legal framework instead of making up their own procedures.

Posted in Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi constitutional issues | 53 Comments »

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 »

Iraq and Libya (II)

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 31 August 2011 12:18

The recent successes of the opposition forces in Libya have prompted a second outpouring of comparisons between Iraq and Libya as well as another bout of compilations of dos and don’ts  in a post-conflict reconstruction environment. As the entire Middle East region goes on holiday for the Eid this week, it is worth reflecting for a moment on one particular aspect of the Iraq-Libya comparison that has failed to receive much attention thus far: The approach adopted by the respective oppositions to questions of territoriality and state structure during their periods of transition.

In Iraq, of course, one of the main watchwords in the post-2003 setting was “federalism”, which thanks to Kurdish and American pressure had been grudgingly accepted by the Shiite Islamists during the opposition conferences of 2002. At first, the Shiite embrace of federalism had been seen mainly as a concession to the Kurdish desire for autonomy within the Kurdish-majority areas, but gradually, some of the Shiite Islamists developed an interest in federalism themselves and tried to combine it with sectarian rhetoric. The crucial point of transformation in this regard appears to have been the negotiations over the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, in which Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI used the argument that “everything the Kurds have, the Shiites shall have” to make the concept of federalism applicable to all of Iraq. Of course, ISCI’s subsequent attempt at converting the general Shiite population to a pro-federal position proved singularly unsuccessful; nonetheless the damage had been done and today Iraq still struggles with a constitution from 2005 that remains full of contradictions thanks to the premature and unnecessary introduction of federalism as an option also for governorates outside Kurdistan.

It is a refreshing but largely unnoticed sign, therefore, that the new transitional charter of the Libyan opposition does not tinker with the existing state structure in Libya in any way. The charter basically confirms the existing unitary arrangements including Tripoli’s status as the capital. True, there is reference to the flag of the monarchy area – which with its tripartite structure at least does have a federalist origin – but it is fair to say that during the past tumultuous months the old flag has come to signify general anti-Gadhafi sentiment rather than a specific pro-federal stance. Neither “federalism” nor “decentralisation” occurs in the text of the charter at all.

These matters will of course require closer attention and more specific solutions as the process of drafting a new Libyan constitution gets underway. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the international community of think tanks over the coming months is to reflect realistically and soberly on Libya’s limited pre-history as a decentralised and federal polity. For sure, the federal past of the country in the 1950s needs to be acknowledged as a historical fact. But the significant role of international players in deepening  regional tensions in Libya in the first half of the twentieth century must also be appreciated. There is no need to repeat this, and the lesson from Iraq is that happy-go-lucky experiments with federalism in a transitional setting – often accompanied by well-meant cheering from political-science pundits in international opinion – may well create more problems than they solve.

In this respect, despite the promising shape of the Libyan charter, there are certainly warning signs out there. As in the case of Iraq (except Kurdistan) native Libyans calling for federalism appear to remain few and far between, although at least some members of the transitional council are known to be thinking along these lines. But already, Michael O’Hanley of the Brookings Institution – who once posed as an expert on Iraqi nation-building before migrating to Libyan issues via Afghanistan – has suggested a “confederal” formula for Libya. Other Western experts are scratching their heads about the “dilemma” of divvying up Libyan oil revenue, creating problems where none may exist and thinking perhaps too much of Alaska and forgetting that the default setting in most of the Middle East is a centralised per-capita distribution formula for oil revenue. From the vantage point of a UK think tank,  one Shashank Joshi declares federalism a necessity in the new Libya. 

Too many Western commentators seem unable to distinguish between centralism and authoritarianism. An unneccessary extension of federalism to all of Iraq after 2003 created additional problems for a transition that was already problematic and needs not be repeated in Libya.

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