Last year the oil-rich state of Basra announced it wanted more independence from Baghdad. This year it changed its mind. Decision makers say the timing is wrong, critics say Baghdad put locals under pressure.
When the oil rich province of Basra announced that it would seek to become a federal region – that is semi-autonomous from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad - it caused problems. And now that the region has announced it will no longer seek autonomy, the decision is also seen as controversial.
“Now is not the right time for raising the federalism issue,” the spokesperson for Basra’s provincial council, Hashem al-Luaibi, told NIQASH. According to al-Luaibi, reasons why included the fact that the local electoral commission apparently didn’t agree with the region’s request and the fact that there were issues with Iraq’s neighbouring states as well as other issues.
The Iraqi constitution allows provinces to become semi-autonomous regions if several conditions are fulfilled: two thirds of council members must approve the bid for independence after which a referendum can be conducted among the people of the state. Basra’s council started taking steps toward autonomy in late 2010 and went so far as to forward their request to the federal government. Apparently the request was ignored.
However right up until today it is hard to say whether the 2.4 million people of Basra want more independence from Baghdad or whether the politicians of Basra are pursuing the goal for their own ends. And now that the bid for independence has been dropped, it is even hard to know which politicians were for the idea and which were against and why they have changed their minds.
There is even conflict on this issue between politicians from within the same blocs. Many of the local politicians who voted for independence last year were actually members of the State of Law bloc, which is headed by the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki himself has been opposed to the idea of increasing independence for Iraq’s provinces.
Basra council member Ghanem Abdul Amir Najem, also a member of the State of Law bloc, explained that for many of the politicians who had voted for independence, it was because they wished to fulfil the promises they had made to their electorates.
Basra is home to potentially 60 percent of Iraq’s oil as well as the country’s only sea port. Yet despite the oil and other income the state should be getting, it does not seem to be reaping any rewards. If the state was more independent, advocates of federalism say, it would better be able to manage its own resources.
Najem then went on to explain why he felt the bid for independence should have been dropped, at least temporarily. It was all about “timing”, he said, as well as worries about the costs of independence. The revenues the state gets would need to be used to fund the new administration instead of providing citizens with much needed services.
Meanwhile Mahmoud al-Taan, head of economic development at Basra’s provincial council, disagreed. “The elected [local] government will have more power to make decisions related to taxes and it would be able to increase its intake of oil revenues as well,” al-Taan said. However he too believed that the timing for an independence bid was wrong. The chance of intervention by foreign powers at a time when Iraq was unstable was more likely.
The more religious politicians on the council had had their own reasons for originally supporting Basra’s bid for independence. Firstly they had felt that “it expressed the will of the religious authority” – they were referring to the fact that debate about whether Basra should become more autonomous dates back to 2006 when influential Shiite Muslim-backed political body, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, suggested that the all the mainly Shiite Muslim states of Iraq become more independent. But now, they too felt that the timing was wrong.
Critics of the decision to withdraw the bid for independence were quick to suggest other possible causes for this.
“The explanations are baseless and unrealistic,” Wael Abdul Latif, a Shiite Muslim and the former governor of Basra, said. Previous to this bid, the most recent, serious attempt at autonomy for Basra had been launched by Latif in 2008. And although Latif was a fervent supporter of independence for Basra, he and his supporters were unable to collect enough signatures to endorse a referendum.
At the time, Latif said he had been blocked by politicians in Baghdad who had put energy into ensuring that the referendum didn’t happen. In 2008 Latif says he produced documents that indicated there had been illegal interventions to hamper the autonomy project. This included bribery, pressure and even the issuing of fatwas, religious opinions, that said that anyone who supported Basra’s bid was sacrilegious.
“All of those who were with us in 2008, who supported the creation of a region, have withdrawn simply in order to keep their jobs,” Latif argued. “Council members changed their minds for the sake of their political careers and to stay in the good books of their leaders,” he added, referring to the State of Law list politicians whose list leader, al-Maliki, was opposed to federalism.
A local legal expert and council member, Tareq al-Abarseem, says that the discussion around Basra’s bid for independence, does not just reflect the tug of war for power between the provinces and the central government in Baghdad. They also reflect the aspirations of local politicians who want more power for themselves.
However now that Basra’s bid for independence has been put aside – for the time being, at least – the local council are working on the middle ground. Rather than trying to break away from Baghdad completely, they’re trying harder to extend the powers of local councils – a kind of middle ground between centralism and federalism, if you like.
And this sits well with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s own policies, announced in November 2011, which compromise by granting provinces more power but which maintain national unity at the same time.
Al-Abarseem thinks sticking to the middle path is positive for Basra. “It will help in developing locals qualified to manage the province, should the federal process [and any bid for Basra’s independence] be restarted,” he concludes. “And if the federal project remains on hold, then it will help provincial councils fulfil their promises to the electorate.”