Basra moving toward independence

It has become clear that Iraq is moving further toward division and disassociation, but how this federalism process would play out remains unclear.

al-monitor Policemen stand guard at Basra railway station in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, May 13, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani.

Topics covered

sunni-shiite conflict, sectarianism, politics, kurds, iraq, independence, federalism, basra

Dec 30, 2014

Since the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921, its provinces have had different positions toward decentralization as a result of the country's ethnic and cultural diversity. In addition, economic resources have varied widely from one region to another. At the end of 2014, Iraqis were once again discussing the possibilities of decentralization.

Perhaps the oldest demand for decentralization was raised even before the establishment of modern Iraq, when a prestigious group of men presented a petition signed by 4,500 people to the British High Commissioner in June 1921 demanding the administrative independence of Basra province. The rationale behind the petition was based on the economic and social characteristics of Basra, such as its having a seaport and economic vibrancy. Iraqi politicians and British decision-makers never welcomed the petition, despite constant demands until 1928 that they consider it.

Other federalism or disassociation plans, such as for the Kurds and Assyrians, were also tamped down by the strengthening of the Iraqi state. The central government in Baghdad, however, failed to please certain segments of society with its management of the country, so demands for disassociation continued until the Baathist regime was overthrown in 2003.

The idea of regional federal governments within a united Iraq was suggested during negotiations between the political blocs while drafting the current constitution, which defines Iraq’s republic as a federal state. According to Article 117, “This constitution, upon coming into force, shall recognize the region of Kurdistan, along with its existing authorities, as a federal region,” and according to Article 120, “Each region shall adopt a constitution of its own that defines the structure of powers of the region, its authorities, and the mechanisms for exercising such authorities, provided that it does not contradict this constitution.”

Establishing separate regions did not, however, meet with broad popularity among the political elite or the public at the time. Only the Kurds, who had been granted significant administrative independence before the overthrow of the Baathist regime, welcomed the idea. The reason for the opposition to separate regions included the lack of a clear vision among decision-makers regarding the separate regions and the fear that dividing Iraq might lead to serious conflicts in the future.

The failure of successive Iraqi governments to provide adequate services and improve living standards have now led to demands to reconsider the establishment of separate regions, especially in the areas rich in oil or other resources, such as Basra. The escalation of violence and sectarian conflicts between the Shiite- and the Sunni-dominated regions has contributed to strengthening these demands.

Iraqis currently appear to be welcoming of the idea of separate regions in two contexts — the first involving economics, allowing the distribution of resources according to a decentralized system and free market economy, and the second involving sectarian strife, which threatens to divide Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.

The technocrats among Iraqi politicians hold the first perspective. They consider the economic, geographic and social specificities of each region in viewing their separation as a way to eliminate corruption at the center and unleash the economic power of the provinces. Political and economic analyst Nebras al-Kadhimi wrote on his website, “The current central state, after 90 years of experience in accumulating oil money and authority in a single place, is an old recipe for the control of some over others, the anticipation of coups, the spread of bureaucracy and corruption, the sectarian and partisan conflicts, the strangling of the private sector and the launching of adventures cross-border. Decentralization may be an obstacle and a solution all at once for all of these disasters, not only in Basra but in other Iraqi provinces as well.”

The idea of a Basra region became more an issue after the recent deterioration in security that resulted in the fall of Mosul to Islamic State forces. Some of Basra province’s council members suggested the idea at a meeting Dec. 11 along with making it a legal demand at a later date based on the Iraqi constitution. Some activists designed a flag for the Basra region that is supposed to fly above the state buildings, the airport and seaports of the province.

On the other hand, there are calls for division for sectarian reasons, based on the ethnic and religious distribution of the population. Some are demanding the establishment of three main regions: a Kurdish area (the Kurdistan Regional Government), a Shiite region (which would include the nine provinces in the center and the south) and a Sunni region (in the north and the west). This suggestion is consistent with the so-called Biden plan for federal Iraq.

The majority of the political parties, which objected to the federal plans for Iraq on the pretext that they would lead to division, are now supporting the option of dividing the country along sectarian and ethnic lines. The Islamic Dawa Party, especially the wing that supported former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was one of the main parties opposing the idea of separate regions when Maliki was prime minister. Today, however, they support the idea of a Shiite region consisting of the central and southern provinces. Meanwhile, Sunnis are demanding the establishment of their own region comprised of four or five provinces in the north and west.

The main problem with these plans is that establishing separate regions should be based on economic and administrative strategies instead of a sectarian baseline. Such a division does not necessarily serve the interests of the people in the provinces. Instead, it would likely multiply sectarian conflict between the regions and lead to displacement and forced migrations, creating strict sectarian disassociation among the regions.

It has become obvious that Iraq will not return to the centralization of the past, but move toward further division. It remains unclear whether the divisions will be based on economic strategies that benefit the people or whether they will cause further sectarian alienation. 

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