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Why Can’t Law 21 Save The Country?
Plan To Decentralize Iraqi Govt. Power Still Stuck In Limbo

Mustafa Habib
Iraq’s provinces want more power to look after their own finances and security. It’s a plan that may aid reconstruction and reconciliation. But it hasn’t happened and locals are asking why.
26.01.2017  |  Baghdad
A conference held in Baghdad, in October 2016 about the transfer of powers to provincial authorities. Iraqi PM, Haider al-Abadi, sits at the head of the table. (photo: الحكومة العراقية )
A conference held in Baghdad, in October 2016 about the transfer of powers to provincial authorities. Iraqi PM, Haider al-Abadi, sits at the head of the table. (photo: الحكومة العراقية )

Almost a year and a half ago, Iraq was supposed to undertake a historic exchange of power. This would have involved devolving power from the government in Baghdad to the authorities in charge of Iraq’s provinces. The transfer of this kind of centralized power is seen as essential, a way of resolving some of the conflicts between Iraq’s different ethnic groups and religious sects, giving provincial authorities control over their own money and security and allowing them to come up with solutions that best fit the kinds of Iraqis living in their areas.

After the decentralization was first legislated for in 2008, there have been several amendments to the applicable legislation, known as Law 21. When Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, came to power he declared his support for decentralized power and promised that the provinces would have more power within 12 months.

However this has not happened. And there are a number of reasons why.

Tikrit needs reconstruction projects and quickly. But the fact that the power is all in Baghdad means this is not happening.

While politicians passed and amended Law 21, they did not take into consideration a slew of other legislation that still existed, and could, ostensibly, be put into practice at any time.

This includes laws from pre-2003, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was still in power, such as the civil service law of 1960 and the public-sector employees’ law of 1991. These and many others contradict any legislation that says provincial authorities have power in these areas.

Instead of working to amend these old statutes more quickly, Iraqi parliamentarians have fiddled around Law 21 instead, yet again, recommending that instead of having 25 members, provincial councils should only have 11 seats. This is despite the fact that, if the provincial powers law does come into effect, there will be more work for council members to do rather than less.

Some politicians in Baghdad have also been doing their best to simply get rid of whole councils in some areas.

“Doing this makes enacting the law on provincial councils even more difficult,” says Soran Ismail Abdullah, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Regions and Provinces Committee. “We’re going to try hard to prevent this because we need those councils to make the law work.”

Abdullah believes this is happening because some politicians want to maintain the centralized system and believe they can render the provincial councils law toothless, if they get rid of one of the main channels of communication between the voters in the provinces and the government.

Politically speaking, it’s all about power. For example, say a certain political party’s senior member is the minister of a certain ministry – take housing as an example. If the work done by the Ministry of Housing is transferred largely to the provinces, that minister, and his respective political party, will lose out. The politicians see their ministerial job as private property, a way to wield influence. So their solution is try and block that responsibility from being transferred to the provinces.

The reverse is also true. Political parties who don’t have any kind of ministry to their name want to see power transferred, in the hopes that they will get a bigger role to play in the provinces.

These kinds of disagreements and this kind of endless wrangling for power is making enacting Law 21 more than difficult.

“The members of the council are not even united about the transfer of powers,” concedes Ashwaq Hamid, a member of the Dhi Qar provincial council. “There are a lot of political parties represented on the provincial councils and their voices are deliberately scattered. This has a negative impact on public services for local people.”

Additionally, as a result of the more centralized system of power in Iraq, most of the qualified managerial staff end up in Baghdad sooner or later. The headquarters of all departments and ministries are in the capital city and the established career ladder for civil servants sees most of them migrate to Baghdad eventually, where they work with other senior managers.

This means that Iraq’s provinces lack qualified staffers and a managerial class. Law 21 gives provincial officials the right to choose its own officials of the judiciary as well as local security and it also gives them the final say on whether and where the Iraqi army is stationed in the province.

Plenty of reasons remain for a more decentralized power system in Iraq – especially at the moment.

It also gives the provincial councils significant power over their own finances, specifying that they can do what they want with the funds from the federal budget allocated to them and it lets them keep much of the money collected within the province itself.

The question that remains to be answered is whether the provinces actually have the right people to manage any newfound independence and power, both financial and security-related.

Those who favour the transfer of power say they can handle it but provide few details. Existing realities would appear to indicate they are being overly optimistic and in fact, there have been a number of workshops and seminars to try and assist in training new administrators and managers.

There are undoubtedly positives and negatives to provincial independence and that is one of the sticking points that politicians have debated many times. Plenty of reasons remain for a more decentralized power system in Iraq – and perhaps especially at the moment.

On Dec. 19, the provincial council in Salahaddin province held a special meeting to discuss the matter. Among the issues they discussed were problems in Tikrit, a city from which the extremist Islamic State group were expelled almost two years ago – yet Tikrit still doesn’t have a long-term plan for revival and stability, because the central government is too busy fighting the Islamic State, or IS, group elsewhere in the country.

“Our city needs reconstruction projects and quickly,” Salahaddin’s governor, Ahmad Abdullah al-Jibouri, said at the conference. “But the fact that the power [to start them] is all in Baghdad means that this is not happening. Our council has decided to start using the powers granted to it by Law 21 anyway, and to move away from the dominance of the ministries and federal departments as much as possible.”

“Giving the provinces more power will speed up development and reconstruction,” argues Bassem Jamil Anton, a local economist. “That has got to be a positive for the future of the country.”

This situation is similar in other provinces. Provincial leaders say the central government, preoccupied with the security crisis and other political issues, is not able to discern exactly what is needed in other parts of the country. For example, while Basra needs to shore up water and power supplies and find better ways of dealing with the poverty in the province, Ninawa and Anbar want to take further control of their own security because they do not believe the central government knows how to deal with their populations and their specific security problems.  

Earlier this month representatives from eight different southern provinces came together in Babel to discuss how they could transfer powers from the central government to their own councils.

“There is a major problem because there are too many people benefiting from the centralized power,” Mahdi Wadi, a financial affairs adviser to the governor of the province of Wasit, told NIQASH. “At the same time the provinces are suffering from a lack of services and poverty. We are determined to get these powers for ourselves,” he concluded staunchly. 

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