The puzzle of Iraq’s 2005 constitution is that it introduced a coming-together symmetrical model of federalism rather than building on the clear asymmetrical foundation of the Kurdish safe haven established after the 1991 Gulf War. An examination of the recent history of devolution in Iraq suggests that a holding-together asymmetrical model may better promote stability by serving the interests of all parties.
THE GENESIS of Iraq’s new federal system lies in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when exile groups stepped out from the regime’s shadow of fear to plot its demise. They were a motley collection of secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, all with their own visions of a post-Saddam Iraq.
The Kurds had long aimed to build on an autonomy agreement negotiated with the Baathists in the 1970s that was never implemented. Motivated by their desire for a Kurdish state and the fresh horrors of a genocidal Iraqi Army campaign against them in the late 1980s, Kurds in the post-Saddam era pushed for something more extensive: an ethnically based confederation that would afford the Kurds maximum autonomy over their own affairs. The Kurds’ partners in opposition had not given the idea of federalism much thought, but many agreed.
A central ally to the Kurds in this quest was a party then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was a Shia Islamist party established by the Iranians in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War that was dedicated to overthrowing Saddam’s regime. It saw decentralization as both the best guarantee against a return to dictatorship and a good way to protect Shia interests in the new state. In 2007, SCIRI renamed itself the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), deemphasizing its historical ties to Iran’s revolutionary regime.
ISCI and the Kurds’ calculations on federalism were not solely about identity. The Kurds saw in federalism the freedom to develop their local oil assets, which would allow them the ability to run their own affairs without being financially dependent on Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Shia region in southern Iraq that ISCI was to propose was not coincidentally home to the majority of Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
The United States, following its overthrow of Saddam’s regime in 2003, made no secret of its own preference for a decentralized Iraq, sharing with the opposition the view that this would prevent the return of dictatorship. From the start, the term used was federalism. With their close ties to the Bush administration, the Kurds and certain ISCI leaders returning from exile had a head start that allowed them to leave an outsized imprint on the new state structure. The areas outside the Kurdistan region, which had yet to produce homegrown parties, were not positioned to give strong expression to their populations’ wills.
Yet resistance to federalism began almost right away. Iraqi nationalists, many with links to the former regime, championed the state’s paramount unity but struggled to articulate a practical alternative to the previous, now-discredited centralization. They were joined by what remained of Iraq’s secular elite and important parts of the Shia clerical leadership. Moreover, some Shia Islamist political leaders outside ISCI, now well on their way to gaining significant power in Baghdad, sought to protect their new domain and began to suggest that Iraqis were not yet ready for federalism.
Notwithstanding these objections, the Kurds proved the best organized of the parties that came to the table to draft the new permanent constitution; they also benefited from their strong ties to the U.S. officials who midwifed the new text. The Kurds’ goal was to maximize their autonomy, even emphasizing that Iraq’s union was voluntary and could be reconsidered if Baghdad did not fully respect guarantees to the Kurds in the new constitution. They also promoted the sectarian regionalization of Arab Iraq to ensure that Baghdad would never regain the power to threaten Kurds.
As the drafting process unfolded, those opposed to federalism were so weak and divided that the Kurds and ISCI pushed through language establishing the formation of federal regions with equivalent powers to the Kurdistan region. With Iraq’s sectarian civil conflict brewing, ISCI tabled the proposal for the creation of an oil-rich, nine-governorate “super-region” in the Shia South that it aimed to govern and protect against insurgents operating in the Sunni heartland west and north of Baghdad.
The result was the 2005 constitution, which prescribes a federal system with two exceptional characteristics: It hollows out the national government through radical devolution to federal regions that can mostly ignore Baghdad on many important matters, including most importantly oil and gas management and revenue sharing. It also provides minimal barriers to prevent the provinces outside of Iraqi Kurdistan from forming new autonomous regions, either standing alone or in conjunction with other provinces, with no limit on their size or number.
From the start, these features raised sharp fears regarding the viability and unity of the new state, prompting a near-unanimous rejection of the new charter by the Sunni Arab community in the October 2005 constitutional referendum. In recent years, the Sunnis have been increasingly joined in their objections by most of the newly empowered Shia Islamist parties, which have grown accustomed to ruling Baghdad. Even ISCI, the principal Arab proponent of Kurdish-style federalism in the rest of Iraq, appears to have shelved its project for a Shia super-region in the face of popular opposition. A Kurdish constitutional veto, however, has so far prevented any meaningful reconsideration of Iraq’s new federal architecture.
At the cusp of the U.S. troop withdrawal in late 2011, Iraq found itself in a peculiar situation. The majority of its political class outside the Kurdistan region, including the most powerful actors in Baghdad, has publicly objected to the constitution’s basic structure. Yet an early review of the constitution in 2007, intended to broaden its appeal, quickly foundered. Partially this is because the review committee took a symmetrical approach. It proposed to adjust the balance of power not just between Baghdad and any future regions but also to bring the Kurdistan region into line with a more centralized state structure. The latter crossed a clear Kurdish red line, prompting the veto threat that killed the amendment process. No clear avenue now exists on how to address this short circuit.
AFTER SIX years of experience with the implementation of the constitution, two things have become clear. First, the type of countrywide sectarian regionalization advocated by the Kurds and ISCI remains unpopular outside Kurdistan. Second, there is rising discontent in the provinces with Baghdad’s poor and nonresponsive governance. Especially over the last year, there appears to be a growing sentiment similar to that expressed by the governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi: the people of his province support giving the provinces greater power instead of creating independent regions, but if Baghdad does not respond, they might go down the latter path.
The stalemate between Baghdad and Erbil has hampered any response to these grievances. The Kurdistan region can veto any reconsideration of Iraq’s state structure—and the controversy over the Kurdish model of federalism tars any calls for devolution of authority and greater local control outside Kurdistan as promoting partition. Maliki has pointedly reacted to interest in decentralization, saying that the country is not ready for federalism in its western, central or southern regions and that differences should be addressed through common action on administrative deficits rather than by “division or secession.”
Yet in the past year, calls for new regions have grown louder as political disputes in the center contribute to more troubled governance. Meanwhile, a growing sense of political marginalization from Baghdad and victimization by government-controlled security forces continues to amplify interest in decentralization in the country’s predominantly Sunni West and Northwest.
Unsurprisingly, Kurdish leaders have sought to embrace renewed interest in decentralization as supporting their view of the Iraqi state, but there are key distinctions. The most obvious is the absence of an ethnic agenda. Calls for decentralization in predominantly Arab provinces are driven primarily by functional rather than ethnic motives: better government and more effective distribution of resources are the principal goals, rather than the creation of multiprovince autonomous cantons as a precursor to possible independence. Indeed, most Arab proponents of decentralization frequently distinguish their federalism projects from those of Kurdistan.
Decentralization appears to enjoy strong support in the southern oil-producing provinces of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar. The difference between the contribution to state revenues by Iraq’s richest oil province, Basra, and the development funds it receives through the federal budget has driven local leaders there to campaign repeatedly to establish the province as a separate federal region. Rumblings in support of decentralization have also been heard from Basra’s neighbors, with occasional talk of creating a three-province, oil-rich region. Meanwhile, in south-central Iraq, the Wasit Provincial Council has reportedly made a formal request to hold a regional referendum, and the Shia holy provinces of Najaf and Karbala have considered forming regions out of a desire for greater local control of the lucrative religious-pilgrimage trade.
But grassroots support for regionalization has not yet been sufficient to spur administrative change. Basra leaders failed in their 2008 attempt to secure popular support for a referendum on establishing the province as a region. Their most recent effort, in July 2011, was tellingly headlined in the Iraqi press as Basra “demands secession.” At the same time, the party that holds the reins of power in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition, has neutralized southern proponents of local decentralization and tabled individual requests by Basra and Wasit to organize local referendums on becoming regions.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