Iraqi regionalism and its discontents

The incompetence of Iraq's central governance is fuelling demands for the formation by local provinces of self-governing regions. But such a course is most unlikely to solve the core problems Iraqis are facing, says Zaid Al-Ali.
Zaid Al-Ali
3 December 2011

Iraq is heading down a dark path, with shortsighted, self-serving and inexperienced political elites at the helm. Since the end of October 2011, several factors - a continuing failure to improve services, a wave of arrests and perceived discrimination in a number of fields - have encouraged a number of provinces to build further upon an already burgeoning movement to form federal regions.

Iraq's 2005 constitution grants each individual province the right to call for a referendum to be held within its borders with a view to forming a federal region. Assuming a majority of voters accept, the newly formed region would acquire very significant constitutional powers that provinces are currently denied.

Many Iraqis strongly believe that any such move could lead to the formation of a number of sub-national entities, which could cause the country to fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines, and perhaps even to fall apart completely. While the current rush to create regions is unlikely to lead to that result for now, it has led to increased polarisation and underlined people’s deep unhappiness with the current leadership at all levels.

A perilous path

During the early days of the occupation in 2003 and until the civil conflict that peaked in 2007-08, most Iraqis eschewed any suggestion of regionalism as a dangerous fantasy that could easily lead to a breakup of the entire country. They opposed this course even though, amid spiraling violence, the state practically collapsed, leaving schools and hospitals in decay and most of the country with close to no electricity. They opposed it, moreover, despite the relatively positive example that has been established by the Kurdistan region, which since 2003 has enjoyed good security and better service delivery than the rest of Iraq.

Basra province was the first to debate the possibility of forming a region in 2008. Its population has suffered terribly for decades from war, international sanctions, regular bombings by the United States and Britain during the 1990s, various invasions, government repression and lack of investment. Basra's network of canals once gave the city the name "the Venice of the East"; today those same canals are full of garbage and are highly polluted. Most of the local population does not have a reliable source of drinking water, often as a result of the toxic munitions that were left to rot in the city’s outskirts. Its highly educated class of engineers and professionals is well aware that the largest share of Iraq’s oilfields exists within Basra's provincial borders, and has become increasingly resentful over time.

An initiative in 2008 to transform their province into a federal region failed to garner sufficient interest with the local population, which was then still willing to give the central government a chance to perform its duties, particularly given that security had only just recently improved. Since then, though violence has remained relatively low, corruption and incompetence continue to prevent any real progress on service delivery. As a result, ordinary Iraqis have for some time been directing their ire at the central government and they are right to do so: the 2008 decentralisation law affords very few powers to the provinces, and virtually all state employees at the provincial level continue to receive their instructions from and are paid their salaries by central ministries. Provincial governments’ annual budgets are in fact not for them to spend; they merely reflect the monies that central ministries have been granted by the central ministry of finance to continue operating in the provinces. Baghdad is completely in charge and is rightly being blamed for the failure to improve living standards.

Iraqis throughout the country are now clamouring for possible solutions. After the failed 2008 initiative, Basra’s provincial council called for a referendum to be held in the province in 2010; it has repeated that call on several occasions. The council has since been followed by a number of other southern provinces which have not reaped any of the rewards that many assumed would come their way from having their fellow co-religionists in power in Baghdad. In late October 2011, Salah Al-Din and Anbar provinces have also thrown their hat in with federalism, in reaction to the same factors set out above, as well as a recent wave of arrests and dismissals from Tikrit University for alleged links to the banned Ba'ath Party. Salah Al-Din’s reaction has been especially indignant and sustained, going so far as to skip a number of procedural requirements to declare the formation of a region (a move that it has since realised is unconstitutional; it is now calling for a referendum to be organised in the province).

The Iraqi government’s reaction has until recently been to either ignore these calls or to cajole some local populations with promises of extra employment (which usually takes the form of useless jobs in the already bloated security sector) or with the petrodollar scheme (through which provinces are afforded a fixed dollar amount for each barrel of oil produced). Since October however, the government has stated that it will block any attempt to form federal regions and has stated that it has the constitutional right to do so. Although there is nothing in the constitution or in any of the applicable laws that could justify the government’s position, the Federal Supreme Court, which has a track record of almost always finding in the government’s favor, has been petitioned on the matter.

A regional rush?

Despite all of the above, even if referendums on the formation of regions were to be held, the outcome would be far from certain. The reality is that although many local politicians are currently falling over each other to demand greater constitutional powers, they are almost all members of the same political parties that control the central government in Baghdad and are equally unpopular with the populations that they are supposed to be serving. Also, contrary to what some observers assume, Iraqis are deeply attached to their capital and to their shared history and many openly reject a weakening of ties, despite all that has happened. Although they may not be aware of the specifics, they are cognisant that the formation of a federal region is a major step that goes far beyond decentralisation and that could lead down a slippery slope towards confederalism or worse.

If referendums on the question are organised, and even assuming voters were to accept the initiative, there are a number of inherent dangers that are involved with the formation of regions. Local politicians across the country are not necessarily more competent than their counterparts in Baghdad, which should not come as a surprise given that they are all members of the same political parties. A good illustration is the manner in which Salah Al-Din province announced the formation of a region on 27 October 2011.

Apparently, no one in the provincial council had bothered to check the constitution or the applicable laws to see what procedures had to be satisfied first. The day after the council made its dramatic announcement in a widely reported press conference, residents across the province openly mocked its ineptitude when, after nothing had changed, it scrambled to calculate its next move.

Another important example is that the limited budgets that provinces do have at their disposal are not being spent. Under the petrodollar scheme, Basra province currently receives one dollar for every barrel of oil that is produced within its borders; it is currently demanding that that amount be tripled despite the fact that it has not spent the previous year’s allocation for investment. One reason for this is a lack of capacity at all levels. This is a problem that exists in Baghdad, but it is even more acute in the provinces, where there is a dearth of experienced project managers to oversee the execution of major investment projects.

Also, provinces do not currently have the type of legal or institutional framework that would allow for an improvement in the delivery of services. Any province that successfully forms a region would inherit Baghdad’s legal framework until it is able to pass its own regional laws; the problem is that Baghdad’s laws are dysfunctional and assume the existence of a strong central government. As such, in the unlikely scenario in which a new region were formed, a number of questions will have to be answered, and quickly. They include the following:

* Which regional body would be responsible for overseeing public procurement, for overseeing the implementation of projects and for auditing the regional government’s accounts

* Which specific regional department would be responsible for negotiating with private contractors or for reviewing contracts to ensure that they are in conformity with Iraqi and local laws?

* Who will work to protect the environment and for developing and enforcing environmental standards?

* What is the best framework for preventing corruption?

Although Baghdad is home to many of the country’s most competent administrators, it has not been able to answer many of these questions satisfactorily for the past nine years. Based on that experience and based on the past behaviour of provincial authorities, there is little doubt that these questions will not be answered satisfactorily at the provincial (or regional) level for some time, which means that any transition process that is engaged upon in the immediate future will almost certainly be mismanaged. By the time a solid legal framework is established and competent institutions are created to oversee its implementation, a large amount of waste and corruption will already have befallen the newly formed region, which will erode the new authorities’ legitimacy and their ability to serve the interests of the people.

As a result of all of the above, regionalism will almost certainly not bring the improvements that many Iraqis are looking for and may even lead to deterioration in the delivery of services in the immediate term. If Baghdad were genuinely interested in improving living standards, it would engage in genuine decentralisation while at the same time strengthening and clarifying oversight on the expenditure of public monies by clearly establishing which agencies are responsible for overseeing each individual process, by eliminating overlapping jurisdictions to the extent possible, and by providing significant support to the training of project managers and auditors. There is nothing secret in this prescription, however, which is why Iraq’s situation is so depressing: its ills are many, possible solutions are plenty, but the desire to make progress is lacking.

In the 2009 and 2010 elections, Iraqis throughout the country decisively showed that they will not offer loyalty to any party that does not serve their interests: parties that previously dominated the political spectrum were unceremoniously dumped in favour of politicians who had previously been discounted, and who have since betrayed the voters with more excuses and corruption. The question today is: has Iraq’s current ruling elite learned from the lessons of the recent past, or has history already begun repeating itself?

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