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Basra\'s Bid for Autonomy Fails

Saleem al-Wazzan
A petition calling for a referendum to turn Basra province into an autonomous region has failed to gain enough signatures, ending a short-lived campaign to push the issue onto the political table.
29.01.2009  |  Basra

"This project has not been successful," said Qassim al-Abudi, administrative director of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).

Wael Abdul Latif, an independent parliamentarian and supporter of the referendum, said the failure to collect the signatures of the required ten percent of Basra’s 1,409,393 eligible voters resulted from IHEC opposition. “There were many IHEC members who opposed autonomy,” he told Niqash.

The petition was launched across Basra province on December 14 and had until January 10 to gain the necessary signatures. However, despite popular support for the measure the petition never gained widespread momentum, surprising observers who expected more success for the measure.

According to Dr. Baseem al-Ali, from Basra University’s law department, the petition was launched at the wrong moment as it coincided with the holy month of Muharram and provincial elections.

Additionally, the petition’s supporters failed to clearly present their project. Many people did not understand the distinction between the referendum proposal and provincial elections. Others did not understand the nature of the proposed autonomy.

At one meeting in Abi al-Khusai district, south of Basra, an elderly man spoke against the petition strongly, justifying his position by saying “if autonomy succeeds we will need passports to visit the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.” In fact the petition was calling for a strong autonomous region within a federal Iraq and not an independent Basra.

Supports of the petition focused their energy on poor popular districts such as al-Hayaniyeh, Rumail, al-Qibla. Tents were set up and banners hung in the streets calling on people to support autonomy. However, campaign observers noted that those coordinating the petition push were young and lacking in political experience.

Abu Mustafa, one Basra citizen, told Niqash that he only signed the petition because he was told that the Fadhila party, which is supporting the proposal, would pay him US $200 for doing so and grant him employment privileges.

At the same time Dr. al-Ali said that the referendum proposal was always going to face strong political opposition.

"It is no secret to anyone that Basra has enormous oil wealth, therefore, any political force seeking control of the province will face fierce resistance," he said. Most municipal councils in the area are controlled by the Dawa and Sadr movements, both opponents of the moves towards autonomy.

Additional political parties also declared their opposition. The Islamic Allegiance Party said that the project represented a move against Islam and that it would weaken Basra. The Iraqi Communist Party, meanwhile, told Niqash that Iraq is not politically and economically prepared for such a step.

During campaigning, Abdul Latif, who led the movement, faced fierce political opposition. Critics accused him of attempting to rip Basra from Iraq, while others said he was guilty of corruption.

The idea of an autonomous Basra region is not new. A former parliamentarian, Mansor al-Kana’n, has raised the issue in the past. However, he withdrew the proposal under pressure he said from Hussain al-Shahristani, the Oil Minister and Saf’a al-Deen, the Justice Minister. Now he is opposed to the idea, telling Niqash that it serves American aims in linking Basra’s economy to the Gulf States. Additionally he says that autonomy is perceived as an Iranian-backed project.

However, other political forces continue to push similar proposals, including the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) which wants to establish a strong federal southern region (the nine-provinces / al-Zahra region project).

Supporters of autonomy say that a strong federal Iraq better serves the needs of different provinces, allowing them to advance their own interests and economies.

Dr. al-Ali says that the failure of the petition indicates the demise of a certain political and intellectual era and the need for new, more credible political forces to emerge. The failure of the petition represents, says al-Ali, popular frustration with political ambitions and the lack of substantive achievement and progress in recent years.

Nonetheless, despite the setback, Abdul Latif says he will keep pushing for the referendum.