One week after the announcement that Iraq was creating several new provinces, including the area of Tal Afar, the decision appears to have resulted in a flurry of similar applications – some say that as many as a dozen additional areas in Iraq are already being suggested as further provinces, or regions.
Last week the Iraqi Cabinet made the unexpected announcement that, in principle, they had approved of four new provinces. These were Fallujah in the still-troubled Anbar province, Tuz Khormato in Salahaddin province and Ninawa Plains and Tal Afar in the northern province of Ninawa. Most experts say that the proposal is hardly likely to get through Parliament because there is so much opposition to it.
The high likelihood of failure means that many locals are wondering why the Cabinet made this unexpected move in the first place.
Tal Afar is the largest district in the Ninawa province with a population estimated at around 400,000 people. Most of the land is agricultural and most of the population is of the Turkmen ethnicity – around three quarters here are Turkmen although there are also Arabs and Kurds living in parts of Tal Afar. The project to turn Tal Afar into an independent province is headed by a local community leader and politician, Mohammed Taqi al-Mawla. Al-Mawla is a Turkmen and a Shiite Muslim. Although many - including the town’s mayor - have been critical of al-Mawla\'s desire to separate Tal Afar, as the prime mover of the project he believes there are plenty of good reasons for it.
“The idea is supported by the people of this district and by the local council,” al-Mawla argues. “Most importantly it will save the lives of the sons of this district who are targeted by extremists whenever they have to go to Mosul to do official business.”
Mosul is Ninawa\'s capital but it is also well known as a base for Sunni Muslim extremists associated with Al Qaeda. Over recent months, the extremists there have been increasingly threatening all kinds of professions and minorities in Mosul.
The problem with turning Tal Afar into a province though, critics say, is that it\'s splitting Iraq up on a sectarian basis. Additionally the legal basis for moves like this is being disputed with many saying it violates Iraq\'s Constitution.
The other part of Ninawa that is supposed to be being turned into a province is the district of Ninawa Plains. It is hard to say exactly where the boundaries of this area will be but it does contain the Christian areas east of Mosul, including Shikan, Hamadaniyah and Tall Kaif. The Christians here had already been calling for more independence and self rule.
Meanwhile Tuz Khormato, which lies in Salahaddin province, has almost 200,000 inhabitants. The centre is mostly populated by Shiite Muslim Turkmen while the Arabs and Kurds living there, live on the outskirts. Recently the Turkmen here have become targets for extremists too – and it is for this reason they want to become independent and look after their own security, they say. However the provincial authorities in Salahaddin reacted to the plan to make Tuz Khormato independent in just the same way as the provincial authorities in Ninawa reacted: they rejected the idea, saying it was illegal and violated the Constitution. Additionally local politicians said the plan to make Tuz Khormato its own province is also motivated by suspicious sectarian and political motives.
The planned changes to Fallujah have not caused quite the same controversy. The population there is relatively homogenous - it is made up mostly of Sunni Muslims - and as it is, the people of Fallujah have other issues to concern themselves about at the moment. The area is still experiencing unrest caused by the dismantling of long-term anti-government protests in the area that saw locals arm themselves against Iraqi government forces and which also allowed Sunni Muslim extremists to enter the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and control certain areas of them for some time.
So why did Iraq\'s most senior ministers decide it was a good idea to make these four areas into provinces?
Most seem to interpret the move as an attempt by Prime Minister al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim leading a mostly Shiite Muslim coalition, to influence Shiite Muslim voters in the upcoming federal elections, planned for April. Although there are Turkmen dominating two of the new provinces, they are also mostly Shiite Muslim and al-Maliki has basically created two Shiite Muslim provinces. The move could also be seen as a way to distract voters from what is still going on in Anbar, where military missions do not seem to be solving the crisis.
Ninawa\'s deputy governor, Hassan al-Allaf, who is Iraqi Kurdish, believes that in creating the new provinces, al-Maliki is also trying to pressure Iraqi Kurdish politicians over the federal budget and other arguments between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. The two groups – the Iraqi Kurdish MPs in Baghdad and al-Maliki\'s party – disagree on how the federal budget should be distributed throughout the country. With the exception of Fallujah in Anbar, the other new provinces are all in Iraq\'s so-called disputed areas. That is, areas that the Iraqi Kurdish believe should be part of their semi-autonomous region in the north but which Iraq\'s Arabs say belong to Iraq proper.
This is why the Iraqi Kurdish politicians on the Cabinet opposed this particular project, another cabinet member, Minister of the Environment Sargon Sliwa Lazar, a Christian, said. At the same time ordinary Kurdish MPs like Khalid Shwani were pledging that they would never let the new provinces make it through Parliament.
Iraqi affairs expert Reidar Visser suggested a further motive on his blog, Gulf Analysis: “A more elaborate justification for the scheme has now been presented,” Visser wrote. “Tareq Harb, a close legal adviser to Maliki, has maintained that the move is aimed at pre-empting the creation of more federal regions and the potential split-up of Iraq. According to Harb, by weakening large governorates like Basra and Ninawa, the prospect of them turning into federal regions lessens since the tiny rump governorate in each case would be “a joke” of a federal region”.
Visser warns that, whether the planned provinces go ahead or not – and currently it seems unlikely - that the idea itself can be dangerous. “There is a qualitative shift in the Iraqi debate when the redrawing of provincial boundaries becomes part of the political horse trading process,” he writes. “The mere discussion of borders threatens to create precedents and goals that can be difficult to contain once they have been ignited.”
Meanwhile Ninawa\'s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Muslim politician, told Kurdish newspaper Rudaw that it was all part of a plan to help the Iranian government get aid and weapons to the Syrian government, which is fighting a bloody civil war in its own country. A statement by al-Nujaifi said: “reviewing the maps show that the two provinces proposed are located on the shortest route between Iran and Syria in Mosul,” Rudaw wrote.
Iraq\'s Sunni Muslim politicians are also opposed to the new provinces – and this week they came up with a unique way to pressure al-Maliki and his potential Shiite Muslim provinces. The Sunni Muslims are demanding that the Zubair district in Basra province be turned into a province too – effectively this would make it a Sunni Muslim province in the middle of a province dominated by Shiite Muslims. They have also said they want to see Baghdad divided into six new provinces and that the existing provinces of Ninawa and Salahaddin are planning to become a semi-autonomous region , in the same way that Iraqi Kurdistan is.
“No one has the right to object to the formation of these new provinces – this move is both legal and constitutional,” al-Maliki has argued.
“Changing these areas into provinces will bring justice to the sectors of Iraqi community living in them,” Abbas al-Bayati, a senior member of al-Maliki\'s own party and also a Shiite Turkmen, said. “I hope that Parliament will make the right decision regarding this issue.”
Unfortunately for them, it seems that al-Maliki and his party are some of the only Iraqis who feel that way.