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Iraq Federalism Bill Adopted Amid Protests and Joint Shiite–Sunni Boycott

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)

12 October 2006

Early reports about the adoption on 11 October 2006 of a new Iraqi law for the formation of regions suggest that it was passed under rather chaotic circumstances. No more than some 140 parliamentarians – accounts vary from 138 to 141 – or around half of the 275 members of the assembly turned up for the vote (all voted in favour of the bill), whereas most of the remaining deputies staged an organised boycott. At one point the session was reportedly closed to observers and journalists were not given access to the proceedings.

The boycott was largely inter-sectarian and Iraqi nationalist: it united all the Sunni parties of both secularist and Islamist colours and Shiite nationalist–Islamists, primarily supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as the Fadila. At least one Turkmen representative also joined the main group of active boycotters, whose combined parliamentary strength is around 105 seats. Their objections range from virulent opposition to the principle of federalism (as seen among the Sunni groups), via preference for a system that would avoid sectarian federalism (Fadila; they also considered the adoption of the law at this time unhelpful to the process of national reconciliation) to rejection of federalism in a context of occupation (supporters of Muqtada-Sadr). A conspicuous common denominator for many of these factions is their background as the “domestic” resistance to the former regime – as opposed to those deputies who are returnees from exile.

The principal backers of the bill were the Kurdish parties and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who together account for 88 seats. The balance of some 50 seats is believed to have come at least partly from Iyad Allawi’s secularist alliance of 25 representatives – whose principal figures reportedly took part in the vote (Hamid Musa, Mahdi al-Hafiz, Wail Abd al-Latif, Safiyya al-Suhayl and Mufid al-Jazairi have all been specifically mentioned). The remaining votes that were required – perhaps between 30 and 40 (an unspecified number of Allawi supporters protested against their leaders and stayed away from the vote) – must have come primarily from the “grey” middle segment of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the 54 or so deputies who are neither SCIRI nor Sadrist and label themselves “independents” or come from one of the two main Daawa factions. Lately the Daawa faction called Tanzim al-Iraq has changed its traditionally anti-federal rhetoric, and with its party mouthpiece now attacking those who “reject federalism on the pretext of national unity” it is very likely that they are drifting towards a pro-SCIRI position. On this particular vote they may have been joined by some members of the main Daawa branch as well as by independents, but the numbers make it clear that there must have been additional Shiite resistance to the bill on top of the protests by Fadila and the main Sadrist faction – despite the fact that there was reportedly enormous pressure on deputies to turn up for the vote.

Reports on the parliamentary process that led to the adoption of the bill are still incredibly sketchy. Over the past week, the work of the Iraqi parliament has repeatedly been interrupted by security scares, and on some days sessions were delayed many hours due to the high number of absent deputies. But if newspaper quotes from the final text of the law can be taken at face value, there are at least some changes from the draft that was made public after the first reading of the bill. First and foremost it has been reported that article 6 now reads, “the referendum [on the formation of federal regions] is successful if passed by a simple majority in each of the governorates that wish to federate as a region provided that participation is not lower than 50% of registered voters” (italics added). This would be a significant change from the original text in that it offers somewhat improved protection of regional interests against annexation by larger neighbouring provinces or regions, and it would better conform to the idea of bottom–up federalisation as outlined in the Iraqi constitution. It may have mollified Shiite deputies from the far south who are interested in having a region of their own and who may have feared absorption into a greater Shiite federal entity, and it may have gone some way to alleviate the concerns of those who worried that the law would almost automatically generate a particular (i.e. sectarian) form of federalism. Also, it is reported that the agreed 18-month moratorium on implementation of federalism has now been inserted into the law itself.

However, at least two other potentially destabilising elements of the original text remain. The incredibly low threshold for calling a referendum (a third of provincial council members – a highly manipulatable segment) is still in place, and apparently no safeguards against a perpetual cycle of referendums have been added (new plebiscites can be called once every year if a unification attempt should fail). Additionally, the manner in which the law was adopted may in itself create controversy: the quorum threshold (138) was almost missed, and there were loud protests about hesitant deputies being dragged into the assembly to fill the required number of seats. It could be disturbing news for Iraq’s democracy that almost half of the deputies chose to boycott the proceedings instead of taking part in (or getting invited to?) a process that could perhaps have yielded a compromise solution. As such the passage of the law is very reminiscent of the final stages of the constitutional negotiations in 2005 and strongly suggests the need for improved dialogue inside the Iraqi national assembly.


Other relevant articles from historiae.org on this subject:

The Draft Law for the Formation of Regions: A Recipe for Permanent Instability in Iraq?

Another Iraq Deadline Passes


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