WITH U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and that country facing an uncertain future, many challenges hover over the lands of old Mesopotamia. The most ominous is the unsettled struggle over power, territory and resources among the country’s political elites. While often described in straightforward ethnic and sectarian terms, this strife has gone through many phases. Various alliances have come together and broken apart as the power struggle has shifted from a sectarian street war to heightened tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. Most recently, the main axis of confrontation has been between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government and its putative governing partner, the mostly Sunni Iraqiya list.
One constant that complicates this maelstrom is the unresolved question of what kind of federal structure the new nation should have—essentially, the power-sharing arrangement between those who rule Baghdad, the autonomous government in Erbil and the country’s provincial leaders.
Within this puzzle reside a number of interlocking quandaries. For example, it is grudgingly accepted that the Kurds in northern Iraq should be able to retain the level of autonomy acquired after the Gulf War in 1991. But the details of this arrangement remain in dispute, and it raises some difficult questions: Would Iraq remain viable as a country if other provinces were to pursue similar autonomy? Even in the context of the Kurdistan region, can revenue-sharing arrangements that respect both Kurdish autonomy and Baghdad’s basic sovereign prerogatives be crafted? Would those same arrangements work for oil-rich Basra in Iraq’s South or gas-rich Anbar in its West?
These are not dry, structural matters. They drive deeply into emotionally held convictions on all sides. Iraq’s new constitution describes the country as a federal state, with significant grants of autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan as well as potentially to future regions throughout the country. But the word federalism remains one of the most charged in the Iraqi political lexicon.
For Kurds, federalism has almost acquired the status of a religious belief system because it is tied to their century-old quest for their own state. But for many Iraqi Arabs, federalism is seen as synonymous with partition. Especially among Iraqi nationalists, there is fear that if the Kurdish federalist vision is implemented, it would bring about what Peter Galbraith, a controversial and influential advisor to the KRG, called “the end of Iraq.”
So far, this fundamental question of governance has generated little more than stalemate. Agreement between the federal government and the KRG on the final contours of their relationship has proved elusive. This stalemate is most consequential in the realm of oil and gas development, which will generate an estimated $1 trillion in revenue over the coming decade. The KRG has proposed a revenue-sharing regimen that not only would protect Kurdistan’s share of the pie but also would reduce the federal government to little more than a cash clearinghouse that disburses oil and gas revenue around the country. Not surprisingly, this proposal is totally unacceptable to Maliki’s regime. In the meantime, the KRG moved defiantly to sign contracts with more than twenty-five international oil companies, including, most recently, the world’s largest, ExxonMobil. Baghdad has rejected the contracts on grounds that they require its approval. For good measure, it also blacklisted the companies that signed them (but has yet to decide what approach to take toward Exxon, which already has contracts in the South).
Meanwhile, the deadlock between Baghdad and Erbil has complicated efforts to establish a workable relationship between the state and Iraq’s other provinces. Given the strong association between federalism and the Kurds’ ultimate desire for statehood, almost any exploration of greater local autonomy by the provinces raises suspicions of a partitionist agenda.
In the current debate, the federalism dispute has come full circle. During the writing of the 2005 constitution—a period of intense civil strife—a powerful group of Shia Islamists openly championed the Kurdish-inspired model of ethnosectarian federalism as a hedge against the return of a Sunni strongman such as Saddam Hussein. Now, however, with U.S. troops gone, Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces worry about an unchecked and autocratic Shia-led government in Baghdad. Despite their emotional attachment to the notion of a centralized Iraq, leading national Sunni politicians and local leaders have now challenged Baghdad by issuing symbolic declarations of provincial autonomy.
All this friction raises questions about whether the constitution contains intrinsic flaws that prevent accommodation. It is based on the idea that federalism should be symmetrical, meaning that levels of autonomy should be equivalent for all regional governments. And therein lies the conundrum. When the constitution was written, it was unrealistic to expect the Kurds to retreat from the self-governance they achieved through their long struggle and blood investment during the Saddam years. Their post-1991 Gulf War autonomy became the effective floor for regional authority in the constitution. But if the rest of Iraq were to get this one-size-fits-all style of autonomy, the survival not only of the central government but of the country itself could be threatened. Hence Baghdad’s hard line with Erbil and fierce response to any new regional initiatives.
We believe that rather than pursuing the principle of symmetrical federalism, Iraq should instead pursue a deliberately asymmetrical federal model under which the level of autonomy granted to the KRG would be exclusive. Such a model would recognize the unique oil-contracting abilities of the KRG while also safeguarding Baghdad’s fiscal and monetary powers as well as authority over oil contracting elsewhere.
According to this concept, Baghdad could negotiate with the provincial governments over precisely what level of autonomy they should enjoy. No longer would the Kurdistan example serve to complicate these separate discussions, and Baghdad would be freed from its current fears that this federalism conundrum threatens to turn Iraq into a mere agglomeration of competing regional entities.
Some might argue that the prospects are dim for implementing such a system at any point soon. To be sure, Iraq faces a number of daunting immediate challenges that in turn have spawned two disparate responses. One is that the only way to keep Iraq together is to fully implement the federal model in the constitution and give Sunnis, Shia and Kurds each the authority to run their own regional affairs—a notion known as soft partition by its American proponents. The other view is that federalism is the worst possible solution for Iraq’s current woes, as it would lead to division and sectarian war.
We believe neither represents a solution. Those who favor the first option should consider the sobering mix of violent protests, arrests and mobilization of state security forces that occurred after the diverse Sunni-Shia-Kurdish province of Diyala sought to declare itself an autonomous region in December 2011. What then might happen if identity-based federalism were attempted on a nationwide scale? Likewise, those who advocate delaying a discussion of federalism until more propitious times need to explain how growing discontent with Baghdad’s governance in non-Kurdish Iraq is to be kept from boiling over in the interim.
In the current strained environment, a system of asymmetric federalism may be the most practical solution for the problems that Iraq faces because it most accurately reflects the country’s enduring ethnic and political realities. No other model is likely to enable the country to reach an acceptable solution for Kurdistan while at the same time ensuring that the central government in Baghdad is viable enough to function. This is not to say that it will guarantee that Iraq comes together into a smoothly functioning democracy. The country’s constitutional flaws are symptoms of the tensions and animosities embedded in the polity, not their source. But it seems clear that the current federal concept retards efforts to resolve the high-stakes competition for power and resources. Removing that barrier could enhance prospects for resolving these conflicts in a reasonably amicable way.
ASYMMETRICAL FEDERALISM is not a novel concept. It has been employed in several countries around the world to recognize diversity and manage internal conflict. The theoretical case for asymmetrical federalism in Iraq should begin with an examination of two main stylized models of federalism: “coming together” and “holding together.”
A coming-together model arises when a group of formerly independent or self-governing units join to form a new country. Classic examples include the United States, Australia and the UAE, which formerly consisted of seven independent sheikhdoms. Not surprisingly, those accustomed to ruling themselves are reluctant to abandon power to new national governments. Thus, these coming-together federations are relatively decentralized, with checks on the authority of the central government and the provinces running their own affairs. They also tend to be relatively symmetrical, with all provinces enjoying more or less the same privileges vis-à-vis the center.
In contrast, the holding-together model is usually an attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of an existing state. It often occurs in the case of formerly unitary countries that face ethnically or territorially based secessionist threats. In many cases, attempts are made to reconcile these groups through a grant of special autonomy. The result can be an asymmetrical structure, where the potential breakaway province enjoys heightened self-government compared to other territories in the union. While few countries are purely symmetrical, asymmetrical federations are distinguished by the deliberate nature of these special arrangements, which are protected in laws or the constitution. Recently, in the case of Banda Aceh and Indonesia, asymmetrical arrangements helped end a long-running internal conflict. In other countries, such as Spain, these arrangements have been used to forestall wider conflict by granting cultural and administrative autonomy to Basque and Catalan communities.Image: Pullquote: Iraq is not a set of former colonies or emirates coming together to form a new country. It is a ninety-year-old, historically centralized state that has grappled for decades with the latent Kurdish desire for independence.Essay Types: Essay