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

Iraq's Federalism Debate Rages On

Some Shia politicians are pushing for a southern federal state, but not everyone is convinced.
By Emad al-Shara

The oil fields start on the outskirts of Basra, the southern city that is home to Iraq’s largest port and has about 80 per cent of its oil.



But neither the city, on the Persian Gulf about 580 kilometres south of Baghdad, nor the surrounding area has much to show for their natural wealth. Like much of the Shia-dominated south, Basra province was largely neglected by Saddam Hussein's regime, and today public services remain poor and living conditions difficult.



The Shia leaders who now run most of the south and hold the majority of seats in the Iraqi parliament are hoping to improve conditions in the region by creating a federal state along the lines of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.



The very idea is ruffling feathers among Sunni Arab leaders, who argue that the shift to federal rather than unitary will break up Iraq, and in recent weeks the question has become the most contentious domestic topic.



Last week, parliament again postponed the debate on a draft federalism bill submitted by the United Iraqi Alliance, UIA, the main Shia bloc in parliament.



The decision to delay the debate came after a new wave of violence swept the capital Baghdad. There are fears that taking formal steps towards a federal system could spark further killings between the various political and religious factions.



One of the strongest advocates of a federal state in the south is Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, one of the major Shia partners in the UIA bloc. He says federalism is a “constitutional right” not only for the Kurds but also for the people of central and southern Iraq.



“Federalism does not mean splitting the country. It is a hope for the future of Iraq, and it is a demand by the masses,” he said recently in Najaf.



Hakim has commissioned his son, Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Shahid al-Mihrab Institute, a SCIRI establishment that promotes Islam in southern Iraq, to mobilise popular support for the federalism project.



Although Shias are generally considered to favour greater autonomy for the south, differences are emerging among the various Shia groupings. This infighting makes it more and more difficult for the Shia majority in parliament to arrive at consensus decisions.



Over the past two months, Ammar al-Hakim has visited many southern provinces as well as the Kurdistan region. His trip started in Najaf, a SCIRI stronghold where much of the population and also Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, support the plan for federalism.



In Karbala, another Shia stronghold, people were less enthusiastic. Here Majid al-Qasimi, a teacher at the al-Haussa college for religious studies, accused SCIRI of populism.



“Their insistence on federalism comes after they have failed to take senior government posts. They do not have mass support. The majority of the people in the south back the Sadrists," he said, in a reference to the movement led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.



In Nasiriya, al-Hakim also met with opposition, facing a crowd that chanted, "No to federalism, yes to Muqtada al-Sadr."



The Sadrist bloc and the Dawa party, which is SCIRI’s major partner in the UIA and is led by former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, have recently criticised efforts to push ahead with the federalism bill.



Hasan al-Rubai, a Sadrist member of parliament, said his bloc did not oppose federalism in a principle, “but they oppose applying it while Iraq is still under occupation".



Others, though, have great expectations of a federal region.



"We need social welfare in the south to compensate for its long period of deprivation," said Makki Muhammed Ali, an official with the Dawa party in Basra, who believes that raising Basra's standard of living in a federal structure would help the country as a whole to "make a huge jump and help Iraq join the ranks of the developed states".



However, leading Sunni Arab politicians believe that southern federalism will damage rather than help the rest of the country. Leaders such as Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni who rejected Iraq's new constitution in part over its recognition of the principle of federalism, have pledged to campaign for a "unified Iraq".



Central and western Iraq – the majority Sunni areas – lack oil and other profitable resources, and leaders such as Mutlaq fear that the Sunnis will be left out if the country's resources are divided up region by region.



Adnan al-Dulaimi, a senior member of the Sunni Accord bloc, considers federalism a “threat that could divide Iraq. We reject it and we will hold on to the unity of Iraq”.



Article 118 of the Iraqi constitution, approved in a referendum in October 2005, authorises parliament to determine the procedures for creating federal regions. It’s an article that al-Dulaimi thinks should be reviewed and possibly amended.



In his rejection of federalism he distinguishes between the Kurdish north where “federalism is acceptable because of historical, geographic and ethnic factors”, and the rest of the country where it would mainly be “on a sectarian basis”.



To him, the solution in central and southern Iraq could be “to give more authority to the provinces", in other words to decentralise power to the current governorates without incorporating them into big autonomous regions.



But even in Basra, which could profit from a change in the power balance, not all residents agree with the idea of federalism.



"It’s an open call for the partitioning of Iraq," said Hussein al-Lami, a 52-year-old shopkeeper in the city.



Lami expressed concern that federalism would leave political factions with even more autonomy from central government than they have now. Many Basra residents, including its Sunni and Christian minorities, have accused the local authorities of monopolising power and turning the city into a virtual Islamic state dependent on Iran.



"We have friends and relatives in central Iraq and throughout the rest of the country, but having a Shia state in the south might cut kinship ties among a lot of people," said Abdul-Sattar al-Rubaie, a 45-year-old doctor in Ammara.



Others, however, hope that a stronger, unified south would encourage people displaced by Saddam's regime to return home.



"After our land dried up, we became like chickens seeking after crumbs. We were forced to crawl away to the middle and north," said Falah Abid Najim, a 40-year-old farmer in Ammara.



"But make no mistake about it: when our situation improves in the south, all those who emigrated will be back."



Emad al-Sharaa and Duraid Salman are IWPR contributors in Iraq.