Iraqiyya Tries to Clear the Air on Federalism

The following article was published by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

During the past few decades, few words in the vocabulary of politics have been more angst-inducing among Arab leaders than “federalism”. Associated with division, colonialism, Israel and other undesirables, “federalism” has long been approached with suspicion by the entire Arab political class. Instead, “administrative decentralisation” – by which was often meant that municipalities would enjoy complete supremacy in such matters as the collection of dustbins – remained the preferred term for contemplating any possible cession of power from the centre.

In this kind of perspective, developments in Iraq during the first part of 2011 have been somewhat remarkable. As is well-known, Iraq’s constitution adopted in 2005 includes flexible provisions for the creation of new, future federal entities alongside the one federal region explicitly recognised in the charter itself – Kurdistan. However, it was generally thought that those provisions largely reflected the wishes of a tiny group of Kurdish (KDP/PUK) and Shiite (SCIRI) politicians who with American help managed to sideline the rest of the Iraqi political establishment: For a long time, real interest in the creation of new federal regions seemed confined to the far south in Basra, whereas pro-federal currents elsewhere remained at the level of rumours. But more recently, even politicians of the secular Iraqiyya alliance have increasingly become associated with various political demands that are federalist, or federalist in everything but the name (as seen for example in the demand by the local council in Anbar to cut separate gas deals with foreign companies). In other words, it seemed as if Iraqiyya was turning its back on everything it had said previously about the virtues of a strong, centralised government.

However, this week, the top leadership in both the secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist State of Law have brought a measure of clarity to the debate. Ayyad Allawi, head of the Iraqiyya alliance, declared that the party is against the creation of more federal entities, while at the same time calling for “greater powers to the governorates on a decentralisation basis”. Another Iraqiyya leader, Salih al-Mutlak, expressed the view that no governorate should have more powers than others. Coincidentally, the remarks by the Iraqiyya leadership followed similar sceptical comments by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of State of Law, who has recently seen a string of potential federalist challengers in his “own”, mostly Shiite fiefdoms, including Basra, Wasit and most recently Babel. (At least some of these challengers involve politicians from Maliki’s own faction.) All of a sudden, it looked as if we were back at the well-known configuration of positions known from the past, with Sunni-secularist rejection of federalism and considerable Shiite Islamist opposition to pro-federal tendencies within their own ranks (i.e. by ISCI and some local politicians).

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