The next few months will be crucial for one of Iraq's most resource-rich provinces. For some time now there have been calls to make the southern province of Basra a region – that is, it would become more independent from the federal government in Baghdad in a similar way to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We have noticed that this idea is more widely accepted by social and tribal leaders who were against the plan in the past,” says politician, judge and legal expert, Wael Abdul-Latif, a former governor of Basra who's been campaigning for more independence for the province since 2008. “We have started to collect the votes of those who support the creation of a region of Basra. After this we will submit a request to the Independent High Electoral Commission.”
Now volunteers say they've already collected enough signatures to put forward a request to make Basra a region – and they say that they'll submit the proposal in mid-April.
To establish a region Article 119 of the Iraqi Constitution says certain steps must be taken – this involves either a tenth of all eligible voters in the province supporting the idea or one third of the provincial council members submitting the request. After this Iraq's Parliament decides whether to go ahead with turning a province into a more independent region with a vote.
And Basra has long been a candidate for this. In fact, the first request for regionalisation was submitted in 1921. “The rationale behind the petition was based on the economic and social characteristics of Basra, such as its having a seaport and economic vibrancy,” website Al Monitor reports.
Some estimates suggest that Basra, rich in oil and the home of a busy sea port, provides the whole country with between 85 and 90 percent of its oil income. But at the same time it suffers from poor infrastructure and high rates of poverty – estimated at around 30 percent - and unemployment.
Previous attempts to make Basra a region were not particularly welcome in political circles – doubtless the spectre of ongoing conflict over rights to the oil and the harbour makes this an unpopular project in Baghdad. But Abdul-Latif really believes the time is now right. He believes that locals in the Shiite Muslim majority province are tired of political quotas and of seeing all their wealth go to politicians.
Supporters of the idea believe that Basra will get a bigger share of the federal budget as a region and that government performance on crucial issues will be more closely monitored by local interests.
And indeed it does seem as though the campaign to create a Basra region has more impetus than ever. There is all kinds of social networking going on, campaigning on satellite television and there has even been a new flag designed for the Basra region-to-be.
In fact popular sentiment to try and make Basra a region seems to be so strong that it necessitated visits by both the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the country's President, Fouad Masoum, recently. Both senior politicians vowed to try harder to transfer more power to local government and to give them more control over their own matters. Masoum told locals he'd lived in Basra for three years and was familiar with the problems that the province had.
As a prime mover behind the drive to regionalise Basra, Abdul Latif questioned those promises. They responded as a result of the growing power and popularity of this project and they only spoke about decentralizing some state business, Abdul Latif told NIQASH.
Meanwhile other commentators have different ideas. Basra MP, Jawad al-Bazouni, says he would prefer a larger region made up of the nine Shiite-Muslim majority provinces in Iraq. “We don't encourage the creation of a one-province region because we don't want cross-border conflicts about resources between different provinces,” he told NIQASH. “There are shared resources like the oil and electricity companies as well as water resources and hospitals.”
Al-Bazouni also played the “it's the neighbours' fault” card, saying that other countries were supporting the attempt at a more independent Basra.
And he says that rather than forming a region, it would be more realistic and better all round to put an amended piece of legislation called Law 21 into action. This law would see local governments choosing their own judiciary and their own heads of security as well as taking more control over their own money, increasing the amount they get based on the amount they contribute – something that's obviously very significant to oil-producing Basra.
“If that law was implemented, the powers of eight different ministries would be transferred to the provincial authorities and it would give the provincial governments an opportunity to test their capacities and abilities,” he notes.
Up until now, al-Bazouni says, plans to work with the new Law 21 have been hindered by the federal war effort against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Some sources in Basra believe that the Shiite Muslim religious authorities may also interfere if the province gets any closer to becoming a region; they would postpone the decision to regionalise Basra for a year, arguing that the move endangers Iraqi unity.
There are other reasons why it might not be a good idea to try and turn Basra into a region right now, says local economist Adnan Farhan. "The creation of a region will require a lot of money - to do things like build government structures as well as ministries and a local parliament,” he notes. Additionally Farhan says he doubts that the province's share of the federal budget – which has already been decided for 2015 – would change in the short term.
It's an extravagance that is coming at the wrong time, he says, pointing to lower global oil prices and the cost of the fight against the extremists.
“Anyway this is really all about a lack of enthusiasm and integrity on the part of past provincial governments,” Farhan points out. “Why should we assume that just because a government is regional it would have any more integrity?”