An Iraqi parliamentary committee, in a recent visit to Washington, has reiterated its demands to divide Iraq into three regions in a bid to solve the current problems plaguing the country. These demands have been made several times in the past, and they consist of creating three major regions that enjoy demographic and political unity — Shiite in the south, Sunni in the west and center, and Kurdish in the north.
In both popular and media memory, this idea has been associated with the name of US Vice President Joe Biden, as he was the one to suggest it when he was a senator in 2007. At the time, the idea was opposed by the Baker-Hamilton Co mmission, which was set up by former US President George W. Bush to study the situation in Iraq after the outbreak of civil war in 2006.
This association, however, seems largely misleading, and it has been used to either defend the idea by giving it objective and international dimensions, or to demonize it by saying that the goal of the US war on Iraq in 2003 was to divide the country, in the framework of an ongoing conspiracy theory.
The idea of regions was raised in different ways prior to the US occupation of Iraq. It was adopted by the Kurds decades ago, and translated into the autonomy project of the Kurdish areas, which was announced by the authorities in the mid-1970s. The idea was then put on the agenda of the Salahuddin Conference for the Iraqi opposition forces in 1992, and then discussed in the conference of the same forces in London in 2002.
After 2003, the issue of regions was raised in a clearer way. In exchange for making the Iraqi Kurdistan region a reality, prominent Shiite forces headed by the Supreme Islamic Council openly adopted the Shiite regional project under the name of "the region of the center and the south." In contrast, the Sunni regional project was explicitly raised for the first time by former governor of Anbar Faisal al-Qaoud in 2003. He gave his life defending this idea.
Meanwhile, discussions about the project were ongoing in Iraq before Biden reintroduced it in 2007, and they did not stop afterward. But there have been changes in the views of these communities over the past 10 years. Shiites found it absurd to cling to this project at a time during which they fully controlled the central government. Thus, supporters of the Shiite region challenged this project and defended the idea of a strong central state. Meanwhile, Sunnis who had attacked the project gradually adopted and defended it. For their part, Kurds continued to cling to it and deem it the solution for Iraq and a safeguard against the emergence of an authoritarian central authority.
Apart from the historical basis of forming federal regions in Iraq, the visit made by the Iraqi parliamentary delegation to the US was an occasion to relaunch the project as a solution to the political crisis plaguing Iraq. Head of the parliamentary legal committee, Khalid Shwani, confirmed in a statement that "a delegation of the committee met during its visit to the US at the State Department with the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the people in charge of the Iraq dossier at the ministry in order to discuss views on the future of relations between the two countries within the framework of the strategic agreement, as well as the political crisis in the country.”
Shwani pointed out that “the committee believes that the establishment of three federations in Iraq will be a guarantee for the construction of a unified federal state as per the project of US Vice President Joe Biden.”
“The delegation of the committee and US officials emphasized the need to address the problems in accordance with the constitution in order to ensure the participation of all in the decision-making process and complete the building of the federal state institution,” he added.
Remarkably, the statement also attempted to link the project to establish three regions to Biden, and ignored all the aforementioned history. Yet, that is not the core issue, which is that solutions are totally absent in Iraq, except for a federal system based on national and sectarian factors.
The assumption that the three federations will succeed in resolving the Iraqi crisis seems to be a prejudice. These are the same assumptions that have confounded the situation in Iraq since 2003, and prevented a stable identity of the state from being established.
Assuming that sectarian or national homogeneity in each region could dissolve the regional, tribal, political and economic conflicts that are expected to erupt between and within the cities seems to be general and uncertain, just as Sunni and Shiite overlapping — in the cities of Basra in the far south, Mosul in the far north and the cities of Diyala, Salahuddin, Babil, Wasit and Karbala — is also uncertain.
In addition, easing the political struggle over power in Baghdad through [the establishment of] regions will not prevent other kinds of conflict over the borders of these regions from erupting, particularly with the significant border conflict between Iraqi cities, not to mention the problems concerning the distribution and management of wealth.
With all this, the essence of the federal concept is still a significant point of contention in Iraq, where those opposing it believe that the Kurdistan region of Iraq’s complex and specific situation does not realistically represent a federation and is closer to a confederation.
All these assumptions lead to an objective question: Have the Iraqis exhausted all alternative solutions, most notably the implementation of a real decentralized system that gives a specific status to the Kurdistan region and broad powers to the other administrative units (the provinces)?
Of course, the answer is, "No." The law, which clarifies the relationship between the central government in Baghdad and provincial authorities, was not serious in guaranteeing a decentralized system, and did not give the provinces the powers that they are entitled to have. Yet, it has contributed to consolidating the central authority’s powers, and allowed the political, security and economic turmoil in Iraq today to be produced.
The key to Iraq lies in turning the provinces into administrative units with wide powers that may be similar to the federal powers, in the fields of internal security, investment, construction, services, education, religious and sectarian specificity in exchange for annulling many central service ministries and bureaucratic systems inherited from the former socialist regime.
Empowering the provinces cannot take place without a fair distribution of wealth, ensuring that foreign policy, the military and national security are in the hands of the central authority, and passing a series of laws, most notably the establishment of the Federation Council, as provided in the Iraqi constitution. This Council would be parallel to the Iraqi Parliament and control the ties between the provinces, the regions and authority in Baghdad.
Iraq did not go through a phase of a decentralized system to prescribe its failure and move toward its partition into three regions. Security failures, economic regression and the spread of corruption probably reside in not taking openly, legally and clearly the option of a decentralized state, and the non-emergence of political parties and leaders who seek to be strongly committed to a comprehensive centralized system.
Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. An author and journalist who has worked in the media for 15 years, he holds a degree in political science from Baghdad University.
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