Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Federalism Only Vaguely Understood 3239 Prince Loses Favour in Amara

While most Iraqis have heard of the term, few seem to understand its meaning.
By Kamal Ali

Federalism is now looming as one of the most potentially divisive issues facing the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi politicians as they prepare for the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty and the creation of its constitution.


Central to the problem is the fact that few Iraqis actually appear to have a very clear idea of what federalism actually means, although most of them have heard of the word and many even have strong opinions about it.


Many get their ideas of federalism from religious leaders, or from the pan-Arab media, Iraqi social scientists say.


They say both sources tend to portray federalism as a dangerous western idea aimed at dividing and weakening the country, or at handing over oil-rich Kirkuk to the Coalition's Kurdish allies.


“How will the Iraqis decide the future of federalism by the ballot box, if they don't understand the concept?” asked social psychologist Fadhel Shakr.


"It would be appropriate for Iraqi politicians to hold televised conferences to explain the concept. Otherwise, malicious Arab media will take the lead role in stirring up sectarian chauvinism.”


Meanwhile, some Iraqis say federalism is a basic political requirement to protect the rights of minorities, while others denounce the idea as a plot to divide and weaken a sovereign state.


There also is a debate as to what sort of federalism might apply.


Some people - including many in Washington - advocate applying the so-called "18 governorate solution" or "administrative” federalism, which would give federal rights to Iraq's existing provinces.


Others – particularly the Kurds – favour the so-called "regional" or "ethnic" federalism, which would grant powers to three or four areas within the country, roughly coinciding with the three largest groups in Iraq: Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.


While many Iraqis understand that federalism refers to decentralisation of power, and some even know the difference between administrative and regional forms, other Iraqis think it’s merely a euphemism for carving up the country.


"I will permit no one to divide Iraq into smaller statelets," said Mohammed Ali, a marcher in an anti-federalism demonstration organised by the radical Shia preacher Muqtada al-Sadr. "Behind this [supposed division] are hidden hands interested in looting Iraq's resources."


"Confederalism is better than federalism," said Mohammed Khalf, 45, a taxi driver from the predominantly Sunni town of Ramadi. But when asked about the difference between the two ideas, he said "federalism is the division of Iraq, and the other [confederalism] is the unity of Iraq".


While Nadia Safr, 25, a follower of senior Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has no objection to federalism in general, which she sees as "democracy, freedom of expression, and the lack of fear from authority", she thinks an ethnic-based form of it would be "the first step to the partition of Iraq”.


Mahmoud Salman, 27, who describes himself as a follower of Muqtada's murdered father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, admits to being somewhat unclear on what federalism means, but he insists that “the important thing is that we follow the religious scholars, and support what they do and decide”.


Iraq's Kurds – whose leaders are among the main proponents of federalism – appear to have a firmer idea than most people of what the idea might mean. But some Kurds can be vague, too, and their views don’t always meet with general agreement.


Haytham Mohammed, 26, an activist with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, defines federalism as giving “special treatment in governance to a particular ethnicity or region". Haytham, who lives in Baghdad, says "in Iraq, ethnic federalism would be best for the Kurds".


But that’s not the view held by other Kurds in Baghdad.


"Our problem was with the old regime. If the government becomes transparent, and represents all the people of Iraq, then there's no call for federalism," said Mohammed, 55, a Shia Kurd working in the capital as a taxi driver.


"In such circumstances, I would reject the federal solution so that I could live in peace anywhere in Iraq.”


Iraq's Turcoman minority, which is concentrated in the same northern regions of Iraq as the Kurds, also appears to have a clearer idea of federalism than most people - but it still might not harmonise with Kurdish aspirations.


Nizar Ahmed, 35, thinks the Turcoman population might deserve its own political domain in a federalised Iraq. "If the Kurds demand ethnic federalism, we will demand it, too, because we think it's our right,” he said.


Kamal Ali is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.