As Iraq’s elected representatives try to form a new government and appoint ministerial portfolios, politicians representing the southern province of Basra are watching carefully and hoping that they will finally get the representation that their province deserves.
“Basra did not have a ministerial post in the last government,” Ali Abdul-Hakim al-Safi, one of the country’s most senior Shiite Muslim clerics, who is from Basra, said. “Other provinces were given such posts,” he complained, adding that it was important Basra be in the running in this new government.
“The province has been deprived of what it is entitled to for a long time,” the spokesperson for Basra's provincial council, Hashem al-Luaibi, told NIQASH. “It is one of the most influential provinces in terms of economics, providing the federal budget with around 80 percent of the nation’s oil revenues, in addition to funds that come from the port here.”
Basra is estimated to hold about two thirds of all of the country's oil reserves. It is also home to the giant oil fields of Rumaila, Zubair and West Qurna which produce a significant amount of natural gas.
Basra also links to several of Iraq’s neighbouring states, including Iran. And often in the past, local politicians have suggested that one of their number should be Iraq’s minister of oil or even the country’s vice president. But mostly those requests have fallen upon deaf ears –in the past a Basra local was given one junior diplomatic post and the job of Minister of Parliamentary Affairs.
“Basra’s representation in the executive and legislative branches is not commensurate with the size of the province and its economic importance,” complains Ahmad al-Sulaiti, the Basra provincial council’s vice-chairman.
Al-Sulaiti also criticised the last government’s set of MPs from Basra. “[They] agree to anything said by influential heads of blocs, but those heads don’t give MPs a real chance to represent their province,” he noted.
One of the problems in the previous government was that the MPs who represented the province did not make enough noise.
“Loud voices demanding that Basra’s representatives get a serious and important job in the government or that the province become a region are only heard during election campaigns,” complains Abbas al-Jurani, a senior member of the communist party's local committee in Basra.
Al-Jurani says this comes down partially to personalities and partially to the fact that some of the MPs representing Basra were not even from the province. It is also due to the fact that no matter how powerful a province is, how big the population, or how much it can offer the national coffers, that has nothing much to do with who gets what positions in the country’s cabinet.
Most often the formation of the cabinet and the parcelling out of influential positions has more to do with Iraq’s unofficial quota system, which sees the different blocs from different sectors of Iraqi society – Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim and Iraqi Kurdish – balance out the best jobs between them.
After this, al-Jurani says, other jobs go to allies and relatives of senior politicians. “This can mean that somebody’s son-in-law gets the job over a senior member of that same party,” he explains. “In Karbala, relatives of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki competed with Ali al-Adib, a leading member of al-Maliki’s own party, and were able to defeat him.”
“The main reason Basra has not been able to claim its rights in Iraqi politics is because nobody here has a unified vision,” says Ali Kanaan, a local political activist. “The forces in Basra, whether political or civil, don’t have the same answers to questions about things such as how many ministerial posts they should have as well as on issues like oil revenues or whether to form a semi-autonomous region or not. We need to form better groups that combine everyone from tribal councils to economists’ associations to confront this lack of acknowledgment of Basra’s rights.”