2008: The Year of Federalism in Iraq?
By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
In all the speculation about the fate of the US “surge” policy in Iraq, many analysts have overlooked a date on the 2008 calendar which is bound to become fateful: 11 April. On that day, the current moratorium on creating new federal entities – a last-minute addition to the Iraqi federalism legislation in October 2006 – comes to an end. From April 2008 onwards, the administrative map of Iraq could change dramatically.
The Iraqi constitutional and judicial modalities for creating new federal entities are poorly understood in the West. Under the legal framework adopted in October 2006, there are two paths to a federal status for an existing governorate: based on grassroots initiatives (by one tenth of its voters or by one third of the governorate council members) any Iraqi governorate can call a referendum for the creation of a new federal entity – consisting either of itself, or of itself in union with other governorates where the same kind of initiatives are launched (except Baghdad). A successful bid for federal status requires a simple majority of Yes votes in all governorates concerned. This is a complicated procedure, but it is at least a method that is based on popular initiatives. As such, it is antithetical to the recent resolution by the US Senate on federalism in Iraq, where there are suggestions about foreign “assistance” and elite conferences to “help” the Iraqis design a new administrative map – in other words, a plan to impose federalism on the entire country, not only “from above”, but also from the outside.
Another problem related to the federal state structure in Iraq concerns the basic principle of federalism itself: an important part of the 2006 compromise on federalism was the idea that a revision committee should revisit the 2005 Iraq constitution, potentially including the question of whether there should be any new Iraqi federal entities at all in addition to the constitutionally recognised Kurdistan (theoretically, Iraq could remain an asymmetrical federation on the Spanish pattern, and with similarities to the principles of devolution in the UK where only certain regions have wide-ranging autonomies). However, as of today no such thorough revision has taken place. The revision committee was duly constituted, but the pro-federal parties in the Iraqi parliament (chiefly the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISCI and the two biggest Kurdish parties) have dominated the committee and its work quite out of proportion to their parliamentary strength. Consequently, the report by the committee (which was finalised early this summer) featured only a very modest strengthening of the central government and did not make any changes with regard to the fundamentals of federalism. Importantly, the report was also incomplete: even ISCI and its Kurdish allies could not find agreement on the Kirkuk issue, which means that the whole constitutional revision process has now stalled.
Today, with a mere four-months interval left before the moratorium on new federal entities expires, one cannot help wonder whether the pro-federal parties in Iraq are being deliberately idle about the whole issue, perhaps hoping to create facts on the ground before any parliamentary vote on constitutional revision goes ahead. The Maliki government certainly seems determined to shelter the 2005 constitution because this document forms the basis of its own ascent to power in Iraq – only recently has the US administration apparently realised that Maliki’s ideas about “national reconciliation” is all about gestures (visits to Sunni areas, promises of government reshuffles that have yet to be honoured) and not about substance (constitutional reform). And although the federalism issue is contested even within such pro-federal parties as ISCI, there is now much to suggest that at least some Shiite leaders (notably Ammar al-Hakim, who has been linked to another revival of propaganda for the idea of a single Shiite federal entity) may try to launch federal initiatives as soon as the current moratorium expires.
What will happen in Iraq on 11 April 2008? The newly released book An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (London: Hurst, New York: Columbia University Press) tries to answer this question from the point of view of Iraqi politics. Instead of focusing on Western policy preferences, it studies the relationship between the Iraqi constitutional framework for federalization and regionalist trends in Iraqi politics. Through a critical analysis of federalism in Iraq, the book suggests that if the constitutional process is allowed to run its course, the administrative map of Iraq will gradually assume a form which will be starkly different from the sketches of tripartite division that currently abound in Washington. There are indeed regions in Iraq, but they are not the same as the ones Westerners are thinking of. And in many parts of Iraq, the population is simply uninterested in federalism, no matter how much external forces are pushing for it. But US policy-makers seem determined to avoid these facts, preferring instead to pressure the Iraqis towards a crude ethno-sectarian federalism model which has no precedence in Iraqi history whatsoever. That sort of shortcut may be tempting from the point of view of the 2008 US presidential elections and the need for quick fixes to the Iraq situation, but to Iraqis this would mean a completely artificial and unstable polity which would be fraught with internal tensions from the first day of its existence.
Excerpts from the introductory chapter of An Iraq of Its Regions are offered to readers here. The book is also featured at a special panel at MESA 2007 in Montreal on Saturday 17 November at 5 pm. To order, use this link for amazon.co.uk or this one for amazon.com. And for regular updates on the federalization process in Iraq throughout the upcoming period of transition, use the form below to subscribe to historiae.org – established two years ago with the specific intent of monitoring federalism in Iraq, and now serving more than 600 subscribers worldwide.
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