For some time now, locals in the southern province of Basra have been saying that they want to be more like Iraqi Kurdistan. Sick of political corruption, a lack of state services and a slew of unfinished government projects in their area, the idea of becoming a semi-autonomous region has looked attractive for years. Basra has oil and a busy port, and the province should be rich – but none of the wealth seems to end up coming here, to a province where there are still a large number of locals living in relative poverty.
At one stage, the Kurdish up north were cultivating a region so prosperous and peaceful – separated from the rest of a more tumultuous and dangerous Iraq – that locals used to describe it as “the new Dubai”. But all that has changed over the past few years, and particularly over the past two weeks when Iraqi pro-government forces took back control over areas outside of the official region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and are putting pressure on the authorities there.
Just when we were starting to work on this idea again, Massoud Barzani began to demand to hold an independence referendum in Kurdistan. So, we decided to sit this out.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s success is part of why the idea of managing their own money and looking after themselves has often looked like the best option for Basra.
But now even the parties who called most loudly to turn Basra into a region, and who recently wanted to revive the idea again, admit the idea has become less popular.
“We are not like Kurdistan, we are not thinking of independence from Iraq,” argues Haider al-Hatem, a local activist who has recently been advocating for Basra to become a region. “But we do believe that the best way to rebuild Basra and to end rampant corruption is the creation of a region that can be run by the people of Basra themselves.”
Al-Hatem wants to see locals making decisions about reconstruction and service projects, but he is happy for the central government to remain in charge of what he calls the sovereign ministries – things like the military and transport hubs.
Anyway, as al-Hatem notes, the central government is particularly jumpy about this issue at the moment and will be waiting for any province to make the wrong move, before cancelling their plans to become a region.
Politician, judge and a former governor of Basra, Wael Abdul-Latif, tried to get enough votes from locals to start the process of making Basra into a region back in 2008. He doesn’t see any similarities between Basra’s bid for more freedom and current events in Iraqi Kurdistan though. “The call for the creation of a region in Basra is legal and constitutional while the referendum in northern Iraq was illegal and unconstitutional," Abdul-Latif says.
Nonetheless those who still like the idea believe what’s happening in northern Iraq is ruining any potential their plans to turn Basra into a region might have had.
Iraqi Kurdistan started as a region and has ended up demanding secession, says Basra politician, Jawad al-Bazzouni, which has impacted negatively on the idea of turning Basra into a region. There is fear that this would cause further division in Iraq, he suggests.
“The Kurds have disrupted the whole country and caused lot of confusion,” al-Bazzouni told NIQASH. “Are we living in a federal state made up of regions? Or are we living in one country with a government that has given broad powers to the provinces?”
Al-Bazzouni suspects that it is, and will be, the latter. The repercussions of the Kurdish referendum are going to take Iraq back to being a nation that gives its provinces more powers, the politician suggests, but not more independence. “And if those provinces are to stay part of the country then they will follow government rules, such as the federal control of border crossings and airports, oil exports and military placements.”
Another local politician, Samir Rahim al-Maliki, says that at one time a lot of people in the province liked the idea but that the project has gone off the boil. Al-Maliki believes the answer is to promote the idea through activism and he also says that he will get involved by making the proposal part of his election platform next year.
“Just when we were starting to work on this idea again, Massoud Barzani began to demand to hold an independence referendum in Kurdistan,” al-Maliki says. “So, we decided to sit this out.”
Additionally, al-Maliki says that certain political parties, who are threatened by the idea of Basra becoming semi-autonomous, are using the situation up north as an argument against the Basra plan. If Basra were to become more independent, “it would not serve their interests,” he says.
“But we will move steadily towards our goal once the confusion up north ends,” al-Hatem adds.
Of course, not everyone in Basra thinks that forming their own region is the best idea. “As a tribal society we should accept what the Constitution and what our religious authorities say, regarding self-determination,” says Jalil al-Salehi, a senior member of an organization of Basra’s tribes. But even his group sees the need for Basra to have more control over its own destiny.
“The province needs greater powers over state services and reconstruction so that we too can reach the standard of living of Iraqi Kurdistan,” al-Salehi concedes. “But instead of calling for the creation of a region, we should be focused on the implementation of Law 21 on the provinces.”
The latter law is one that would give provinces more powers to, for example, choose their own judiciary and revenues from sources like oil production.