The most recent manifestations of support for autonomous regions in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni provinces are somewhat different, born of a pervasive sense of alienation and sectarian discrimination by Baghdad. Pro-federalism sentiment in the oil-rich Shia South may create huge uncertainty over the country’s economic future, but sectarian-tinged moves by Sunni-majority provinces to seek regional status and Baghdad’s strong response have left Iraq on a political knife-edge.
These tensions came to a dramatic head in October 2011 when, following a wave of arrests of alleged conspirators in a Baathist coup plot, the provincial government of Salahuddin, a governorate north of Baghdad, symbolically voted to become an autonomous region. Other Sunni-majority provinces, including Nineveh and Anbar, quickly said they were prepared to follow suit if Baghdad did not do a better job of responding to their demands.
The provincial government in Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurd province in northeastern Iraq, went a step further. In December 2011, it adopted its own symbolic declaration of autonomy. The blowback was troubling. Baghdad-controlled security forces were quickly mobilized to the province, thousands of Shia demonstrators stormed the provincial government headquarters, unidentified armed groups blocked major highways and members of the mainly Sunni political bloc that sponsored the measure fled the province ahead of arrest warrants. Almost simultaneously, serious disputes erupted between Maliki and two of the most prominent national Sunni politicians who had supported Salahuddin’s and Diyala’s calls for federalism. One of them, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, fled to the Kurdistan region to escape his own arrest warrant for alleged involvement in assassination plots. The other, a deputy prime minister, has had his cabinet participation frozen.
Some national-level proponents of decentralization for these provinces may indeed have the more pernicious agenda that Baghdad attributes to them: using federalism as a way to destroy Iraq’s new political order, with the hope that a new, Sunni-nationalist-dominated state can emerge from the embers. But in the midst of this controversy, it is important to recall that the driving local motive in Salahuddin and Diyala was not separation. Salahuddin’s council in fact emphasized that it wanted to remain part of a “united Iraq.” There also have been no explicit calls for the creation of a multiprovince Sunni region. Instead, provincial leaders in Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar and Nineveh are looking at a single-province-as-region model, precisely to avoid accusations that they seek to destroy Iraqi unity.
Moreover, there is no consistent popular support for federalism in these provinces. In fact, powerful local tribes in Anbar have organized public protests against the idea of transforming their province into a region. Local opinion polls show frustration with the central government but no desire for Kurdish-style autonomy. Respondents consistently favor Baghdad’s control over oil revenues to protect national unity, but they also want greater local administration of basic services and reconstruction.
To fully appreciate how an asymmetrical model could address this impasse, consider how centralized administration of the governorates by Baghdad works at present. Governors and provincial councils have limited direct budgets, no control over local public-sector hiring and no formal say over projects undertaken by federal ministries within their provinces. In many cases, the bulk of the security forces operating in the governorates report directly to the prime minister’s office, and access to the minority share of capital-investment funds given to provincial councils requires a laborious series of approvals from multiple ministries in Baghdad.
In our view, the complaints of the Arab provinces of Iraq could be addressed through more empowered local administration, greater local say over security and greater distribution of oil revenues. And this in fact is close to what the heads of Iraq’s fifteen provincial councils outside the Kurdistan region laid out in a joint letter to Prime Minster Maliki last October, when they asked for more functional revenue sharing and a greater local say on both public-sector hiring and environmental and customs policy.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this is a markedly different prescription from the relationship between the federal government and the Kurdistan region. The gulf between the centralization endured by the provinces and the virtual autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdistan region leaves ample room for an asymmetrical model to raise the status of the provinces without approaching the kind of regionalization seen as a threat to national unity.
IRAQ’S KURDS still dream of their own state, but for now their fortunes remain tied to Baghdad. Mostly because of their own restive Kurdish minorities, neighboring countries will simply not countenance an independent Kurdistan. In the meantime, nationalist Iraqis resent what they see as the Kurds’ influence over the constitution aimed at furthering their independence by hollowing out the Iraqi state. Absent a reset, this set of affairs is a recipe for what could be a perpetual cycle of recrimination and internal strife.
Some Iraqi nationalists may be starting to conclude privately that Erbil is more trouble than it is worth in terms of the country’s territorial integrity. But all must accept that whatever Kurdish nationalists may dream, both sides are stuck with each other for the time being. After decades of bloody armed struggle, it took the cataclysmic 2003 U.S. invasion for the Kurdistan region’s autonomy to be enshrined in the Iraqi constitution. A crisis of similar magnitude would be required for the Middle East’s century-old, post-Ottoman order to be shattered and international borders redrawn.
Short of apocalyptic regional war, reexamining the federalism question appears to be necessary for Iraq to move toward some degree of stability. The straightforward way would be a redrafting of the constitution with authority of the Kurdistan region and other provinces delineated in separate chapters. But Iraqi politics are much messier than that ideal. In 2010, the country spent more than nine months forming a still-incomplete coalition government—it is unlikely the same parties could successfully undertake a comprehensive constitutional overhaul.
A possible asymmetric solution must identify key areas of dispute and recast the debate to affirm the KRG’s autonomy without applying the same concept to other provinces and eviscerating Baghdad’s sovereignty. An elevated administrative status for the provinces could be negotiated among Arab parties and local leaders. Given the difficulties in wholesale revision of the constitution, this change would come via legislative and political means rather than a constitutional amendment.
This represents a second-best outcome but is realistically as far as the envelope can be pushed under present circumstances. Initial understandings could then be codified in the constitution once circumstances permit. Indeed, any progress must present benefits compelling enough to challenge the status quo. In other words, each of the three levels of government described in the constitution—provincial, regional and national—would need to see clear benefits from an asymmetrical system for the idea to gain traction.
The path to pursuing this complex trifecta is perhaps through a bilateral deal between Baghdad and Erbil on oil and revenue sharing, followed by constitutional amendments that remove the threat of Kurdish-style regionalization elsewhere in Iraq, especially by Iraq’s main wealth producer, oil-rich Basra. In order to accept these arrangements and put aside their current constitutional right to form autonomous regions, the governorates should quickly receive tangible administrative empowerment from Baghdad. The concrete proposals included in last October’s joint letter by the heads of Iraq’s fifteen provincial councils could form the basis of these latter talks.
OIL HAS been at the heart of the federalism dispute from the beginning. At present, with a standoff over legislation governing oversight of the hydrocarbon sector, a deal between Baghdad and Erbil on oil matters feels a long way off. But there are potential trade-offs that could improve confidence between the two sides and lay the groundwork for a more stable, asymmetrical federal system.
In its essence, such a deal would entail the federal government guaranteeing the KRG an automatic share of oil revenues, authority to sign oil contracts, and access to the oil- and gas-export infrastructure necessary to develop a long-term platform for self-governance. (The KRG is currently unable to export the oil it produces and its day-to-day operational funding is subject to the vagaries of Baghdad’s annual budgetary process.) In return, the KRG would recognize the center’s paramount authority on oil revenue handling and setting national oil- and gas-contracting standards. Kurdish leaders also would need to agree that these arrangements apply only to the Kurdistan region and undertake not to oppose laws or constitutional amendments that consolidate Baghdad’s oil and fiscal powers elsewhere.
Several factors could potentially make such a deal attractive to both sides. In the absence of an independent pipeline network to neighboring states, Kurdish hydrocarbon exports are dependent on infrastructure controlled by Baghdad. The KRG could build its own pipelines, but the Kurdish region is landlocked and can only export through Iran and Turkey. Both countries are wary of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a model that could inspire their own restive Kurdish minorities. A more promising option is a negotiated deal, where Kurdish exports could be guaranteed unfettered flow through the national Baghdad-controlled pipelines in return for the KRG conducting all crude sales through the federal government, with revenue collection through the federal treasury. This meets Kurdish export needs and recognizes Baghdad’s role in selling and collecting oil revenues.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