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Al-Zubair\'s breakaway dream

Saleem al-Wazzan
The idea of making al-Zubair a separate province is one that has existed since the early 1990s. Saddam Hussein hoped to make al-Zubair province number 19 and annex it to Kuwait after invading. Saddam’s failure in…
15.04.2010  |  Basra

Today, almost twenty years later, voices in Iraq are calling for the revival of the dream of creating a new province, though this time, without invading Kuwait.

Al-Zubair is presently part of Basra province and some people there demnd the creation of a separate, independent province, claiming the wholesale neglect of the district by the Basra government and that its environmental and service conditions have deteriorated in spite of the enormous economic opportunities.

The would-be district sits 20km south-west of Basra and has borders with Kuwait. Its area is approximately 50 percent of Basra’s and it is inhabited by mainly Sunnis, though Basra Province has a Shia majority.

“The city is one of the oldest in Iraq, but until now it has no paved streets, no organised markets and no drinkable water provided, despite the fact that it is known to suffer from water scarcity,” complains forty- five-year old Mohammed Nasser, who works as a teacher in al-Zubair.

“We are only given the crumbs out of the amounts allocated for the province and we live on humanitarian aid provided by the different organisations.”

Iraq’s 2010 budget allocated to oil-rich provinces a US$1 fee for every barrel of oil and US$1 for every 150 cu m of natural gas. 5 percent of the revenues of bordering provinces will also go to the oil-rich provinces to help them with development. Under the new law, Basra receives move than $2 million every day. Its oil production, according to government reports, exceeds 1.8 million a day.

Despite the prospect of this money, residents of al-Zubair complain of deteriorating services and claim that the amounts allocated to Basra province are unequally shared among its different districts. All this despite the fact that, according to Waleed Khaled Fadhel, head of al-Zubair’s municipal council, al-Zubair district is responsible for most of Basra’s revenue.

“The highest percentage of produced and exported oil comes from Zubair and despite that, the district is still suffering from the very limited financial allocations given from the general budget as well as from the region’s budget.”

He has demanded that Basra allocate part of its US$1 oil production revenue to al-Zubair directly. He adds that local people, with the support of important local politicians, support the transformation of the district into a province if the local and national governments do not attend to al-Zubair’s demands.

Al-Zubair, which comprises the majority of Basra’s citizens, with around 700,000 of Basra’s one million residents living there, has three major economic sources: Umm al-Qasr port, 45 kilometers southwest of Basra, considered as the largest Iraqi port, al-Shuaibiya oil fields and tomato farms in Safwan.

The Italian company Eni, in cooperation with American and South Korean partner companies, recently signed contracts to develop oil fields in al-Zubair and increase production six-fold from 200,000 to 1.2 million barrels per day.

“People of the district want to receive financial allocations based on their share oil production.”

Tareq al-Abarseem, a legal expert, says the idea of the district seceding from Basra is unrealistic. He believes no modern law allows it.

“Law Number 59 of 1969 is still in effect and there is no legislation or a federal council to rule on such issues.”

Article 4 of Law No. 59, relating to the administrative divisions, stipulates that a presidential decree and approval from the legislature are necessary to set a name, capital and borders of any new province. An area may not secede unilaterally.

Some believe that that wish to divide the oil-rich province of Basra is motivated by ‘external agendas’. Al-Zubair has the largest Sunni population in the South and shares some habits and traditions with other Gulf countries. The tribes of the Najd area overlap with Kuwait and the al-Zubair oilfields are shared with Gulf neighbours.

The Vice President Basra Province, al-Sulaiti, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), completely rejected the idea, suggesting the idea was the result of neighbouring countries’ pushing their own agendas.

The ISCI, a long-time supporter of federalism, continues to demand a federal relationship between Baghdad and the Southern and Central areas of the country, where Iraq’s nine Shia provinces are located. Al-Sulaiti does not support any divisions or situations that could cause countries to encourage other areas to demand separation on ethnic or sectarian grounds. He said that the proposition seemed to benefit only neighbouring countries.

Even those who can see positive aspects of the separation plan share fears of the precedent the move would set. Abdul-Jabbar al-Hilfi, an economist, said there are great economic advantages if al-Zubair became a province.

“However, such division will encourage other districts in Basra, such as al-Qarna, where the giant Majnoon oil fields are located, to also demand to be separated and will create economic and population divisions and fragmentation,” he said.

As a solution, al-Hilfi called upon the government to increase al-Zubair’s share in the budget allocation.

“There is a special law for cities that are threatened by pollution. Al-Zubair can be considered among these cities, because it is an oil producing one, and it is constantly suffering from H2S gases coming from oil fields and gas emissions. It is the right of this district to demand adequate budget allocations to combat pollution.”

Engineer Abbas Rushum, mayor of al-Zubair district, is one of the supporters of separation. He believes that such separation should take place but without rush.

“I hope to see al-Zubair become becomes an independent province within the proposed southern and central federation, rather than through immediate separation,” he said.

“I personally prefer that we insist on increasing our financial allocations according to the size of our population in order to fulfil the district’s need for services.”

The local government in Basra has announced very ambitious plans and said it will implement huge future projects that would respond to the high population numbers in Zubair. However, these promises were not fulfilled until now and this will push more people to demand administrative independence from Basra in the days to come.