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Centralism and Unitary State Logic in Iraq from Midhat Pasha to Jawad al-Maliki: A Continuous Trend?

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)
22 April 2006

[This is an English translation of an article published in Norwegian in the journal Babylon vol. 4 no. 1, 2006 and originally titled “Centralism in Iraq: Anachronism from the British Mandate or a Viable Alternative for the Future?” A postscript about the nomination of Jawad al-Maliki as prime ministerial candidate has been added.]


Iraq” appearing casually in Ottoman official correspondence from 1910, several years before its supposed genesis.

Before 1914, the area that was to become modern-day Iraq was divided into three separate Ottoman administrations. After the First World War, this territory was amalgamated under a British mandate and was formally given the name “Iraq”. Since independence in 1932, Iraq has been characterised by a unitary state model and a highly centralistic form of government. Are these features merely leftovers from the days of the British, with absolutely no relevance for the contemporary political debate in Iraq?

Iraq: pre-modern roots

In recent years, Western academics have increasingly converged on an interpretation of modern Iraq as an “artificial” construction. According to this perspective, no such thing as an “Iraq” existed before the First World War; the country was only cemented together by British military strategists from three very “disparate” Ottoman provinces that fell to British control during the war – Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. In step with growing internal conflict in Iraq after the war in 2003, the “artificiality” thesis has become increasingly popular. More and more, political problems in Iraq are explained with reference to the country’s alleged predicament of being “manufactured” by outsiders; Iraq is simply seen as lacking the “historical depth” required to sustain a viable modern polity. Such views tend to resonate well in academic circles where deconstructionism is in vogue, and where scepticism against nationalist teleologies for some time has formed an integral aspect of any studies of political history.

       However, one striking aspect of the constructivist perspective on Iraqi history should give pause for thought: its most ardent supporters are invariably those who have never been anywhere near original documents from the decades immediately preceding the assumed genesis of the country. In fact, anyone who researches primary materials from the early 1900s soon understands that it is impossible to deny the existence of Iraq as a geographical and social–historical category at the time. For “Iraq” is simply omnipresent in those sources. Foreign consuls, be they Persians or British, would write about “Iraq”. Ottoman administrators, from the sultan’s advisors down to office clerks in the central registries for state correspondence, referred to “Iraq” as a familiar category which required no further explanation. Not least, people living on the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris spoke of an area they knew as Iraq. In Basra in 1910, the municipality agreed on a proposal to erect a statue of the Ottoman statesman Midhat Pasha (1822–1883), to keep alive the memory of “his many services to Iraq” in the 1860s and 1870s.(1)

       There is little doubt that some kind of Iraq existed, and that this concept was intelligible to ordinary people. Both Sunnis and Shiite Muslims used it to refer to the combined area of the Ottoman vilayets of Basra and Baghdad, at least north to Samarra. To what extent the popularity of the concept abated further north is a moot point. Some local writers had used expressions like “the Kurdish tribes among the people of Iraq”(2) as early as in the nineteenth century (this would seem to imply that the concept was indeed in use north of Samarra as well); the Ottomans, on the other hand, except for a brief interlude in the early Young Turk period, maintained a distinction between an “Iraq” consisting of Basra and Baghdad and the area to the north which was mostly denoted through its administrative name, the province of Mosul. At any rate it is clear that the standard depiction of Iraq as something that was created by the British from scratch – without any pre-modern roots and essentially forced on the local population – is untenable. The British role was mainly to join Mosul to the two provinces of Basra and Baghdad, whose inhabitants for their part were already familiar with a larger concept of Iraq.

       In its most vulgar form, the “constructivist” interpretation of modern Iraq has become allied to an even more problematic ethno-religious caricature map of the country. Mosul, it is claimed, was “Kurdish”; Baghdad, “Sunni Arab”; Basra, “Shiite Arab” or even “Shiite, with a strong orientation towards Persia”. Such models are another unfortunate side effect of twenty-first–century journalism being projected onto atlases of the past. They overlook the fact that the provincial border between Basra and Baghdad was located far south towards the Gulf (it ran eastwards from Nasiriyya to Amara), so that the majority of Shiite Muslims in the area were in fact residents of the province of Baghdad. Similarly, Mosul was highly complex in terms of ethnicity, with large groups of Sunni Arabs, Turkmens, Yazidis and Christians alongside the Kurds. But if this complexity is overlooked, the “artificiality” thesis perpetuates itself: cross-regional cooperation, if taken note of at all, is dismissed as the result of outsiders employing brute force against a population which for their part are portrayed as being locked in internecine antagonisms, unable to conceive of any sort of shared super-regional identity.

British centralism

Of course, acknowledging the existence of a historical–geographical Iraq with pre-modern roots is not the same as taking a deterministic view of the political upheaval that followed in the wake of the Ottoman collapse during the First World War. The 1920s were supposed to be the age of self-determination, and Britain had been awarded a mandate to help develop a democratic system – or systems – to achieve the greatest possible benefit for the local population. True, Britain had received a single “Mesopotamia” mandate, but then again France had been allotted one mandate for Syria (where two independent states later developed as Lebanon was kept separate). And in the area that was to become the political entity known as Iraq, there was certainly no dearth of visionaries who proposed distinct alternatives to the British-sponsored scheme of unity from Mosul to the Gulf. In Basra, a project was launched to establish a mini-state covering the strategic seaboard and its fertile hinterland just north to Qurna, at the junction of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Tiny Zubayr, a desert town to the west of Basra, demanded it be recognised as an independent emirate on par with Kuwait and Qatar. And in the northern areas seen as lying outside the historical Iraq core area, reactions were even stronger: Kurdish Sulaymaniyya refused out of hand any suggestion about inclusion in Iraq; Kirkuk, at the time a Turkmen-dominated town, demanded guarantees for the status of Turkish as a local language. Among the Kurdish areas, only Arbil favoured amalgamation with Iraq at first.(3)

     Nevertheless, in this chaos of competing visions, the British opted for the unitary and centralised state based on Baghdad. Many of London’s arguments were of an ad hoc character. Some British experts thought Mosul was of vital importance as a buffer against a possible Ottoman/Turkish comeback, but others strongly disagreed and maintained that control of Basra would be sufficient to safeguard imperial interests. Certain officials in Whitehall were convinced that mountainous Mosul held gigantic oil reserves, whereas several colleagues hardly gave oil any thought at all until the late 1920s, when the first actual oil discoveries in the region were made. The only constant aspect of British thought on how to organise the region administratively had to do with neither defence questions nor energy resources. Ever since 1918, key British officials followed the lead of the then-acting high commissioner, Arnold Wilson, who had championed the idea that only by including Mosul as a breadbasket for the areas south of Baghdad would it be possible to create an economically viable political entity in the region. On top of this came a more cynical argument for maintaining territorial unity from the Gulf to the Kurdish mountains. The early British administrators were virulently critical of the Shiite clergy, whom they considered a relict of medieval times. They hoped to gradually achieve a situation parallel to that of Italy, so that “Pope and mujtahid [Shiite jurist] end by being regarded as silly old men”. To achieve this, it would be necessary to create a compound state; “Sunni Mosul must be retained as part of the Mesopotamian state in order to adjust the [sectarian] balance”, advised Gertrude Bell in October 1920.(4)

     A more principled British argument for the centralised state also surfaced occasionally. During a League of Nations meeting in November 1926, the British high commissioner in Iraq, Henry Dobbs, received critical questions about the real level of local self-government in Iraq. Was it not the case that these areas had enjoyed a greater measure of local autonomy during Ottoman times? Dobbs replied that quite possibly there had been a degree of “curtailment” under the British, but he did not see this as a problem.(5) A centralised model of government would allow for improved financial control, a key priority for London at the time. Additionally, this was the age of the large and “viable” state in international politics; alternatives like loose confederations or even small city-states were repeatedly dismissed as expensive and “archaic” in British policy-making circles concerned with the Middle East. Still, some aspects of the British centralisation in Iraq seemed to come down to a sheer lack of resources. Towards the late 1920s, for instance, only two standard secondary schools existed in the country (in Baghdad and Mosul) – despite outspoken British fears of side effects like the concentration of nationalist agitation in a few key centres.

     With this kind of focus on effectiveness and economy, issues of “self-determination” soon faded into the background. Quite early on, London decided to use the centralised state as the principal instrument to release Britain from its mandate obligations in Iraq. In this way, imperial expenses could come down, while an informal British presence could be maintained through a treaty relationship with a ruler largely dependent on external support. In line with this policy, the adversaries of the unitary state were given the cold shoulder by British administrators. Basra separatists were dismissed as fantasists. Tendencies to Kurdish nationalism were scornfully ridiculed. And where more than words was needed, London had other means at its disposal. In northern Iraq especially, RAF bombs were unhesitatingly put to use in the name of state building, and promises that the Kurdish language would obtain local-language status were effectively set aside in favour of the overarching goal of balancing budgets and adhering to the timetable for an early Iraq exit. British strategists had decided that London’s state-building efforts were to cease in 1932, and they managed to keep this deadline after having inundated the League of Nations with a series of slick reports about the supposed internal harmony of the newly established state.

Iraqi centralism

The assertion that the centralised unitary state model in Iraq is a heritage from the British mandate period is thus a valid one. But this model was remarkably soon embraced by the new elite of twentieth-century Iraq. There were military coups in 1936 and 1941 and a pro-communist takeover between 1958 and 1963, and yet none of these ruptures occasioned any rethink of the more fundamental question of state structure in Iraq. Quite the contrary, the model of government where all roads lead to Baghdad was maintained throughout these turbulent decades – and quite unquestioningly so.

     One important factor in this was the enthusiasm shown by certain groups from outside the “historical Iraq” for participating in the new regime. Turkmens from Kirkuk and Kifri exemplify this trend. They soon abandoned their initial scepticism towards Baghdad and came to play a key role as administrators within the state bureaucracy that was being established. Similar tendencies were seen in Mosul. Before 1914, this region had maintained strong links with Aleppo (in modern-day Syria), but in the 1930s its young men emerged as a preponderant element within the new regime; no less than four premiers of the monarchy were of Mosul origins. In many ways these young civil servants carried with them a pre-war tradition that had a centralist ideal of government attached to it, for their home regions in Mosul and Kirkuk had been prominent as recruitment centres for the Ottoman military and bureaucracy only decades earlier. After 1932, the vision of a centralised state where qualified candidates could find a job throughout the territories of the state was carried on – albeit this time on a smaller, Iraqi scale. And for ideals of government, the gaze was still very much directed towards Anatolia: Mustafa Kemal’s centralist Turkish republicanism was enormously popular as a model among young Iraqis, and many of them reproduced Turkish views on decentralisation and autonomy projects as being inappropriate and possibly even harmful to young nations on the rise.(6)

     But also those groups that had been marginalised during centuries of Ottoman rule readily embraced the new state model. Even though Shiites from the areas south of Baghdad would frequently complain about their level of representation in the Iraqi capital, they never seriously questioned the centralised and unitary state framework, for instance by presenting projects of radical decentralisation. Quite the reverse, in many cases they spearheaded initiatives to further refine the model of centralised government. By way of example, Salih Jabr, a Shiite prime minister from southern Nasiriyya, was a leading figure in the centralisation of Iraq’s oil sector towards the end of the 1940s. Among his initiatives was a centralised Iraqi development fund which later was given control of no less than 70 per cent of the country’s oil revenues – all administered from its Baghdad headquarters. Similarly, driven by a motive to enhance self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on Iranian infrastructure, Jabr advanced the project of a national Iraqi oil refinery. First projected for Bayji near Kirkuk, the refinery was eventually constructed at Dura, close to Baghdad. No one seemed to raise eyebrows at these centralising initiatives by a Shiite Muslim from southern Iraq; Jabr was simply one among several millions of Iraqis who by 1950 saw the unitary state with its capital in Baghdad as a natural political framework. In this manner, the so-called “artificial” Iraq had a solid support base from Basra to Mosul many decades before the coming of the authoritarian Baath. It is a fundament of historical glue that is easily forgotten when violence rages in contemporary Iraq, but one that is worth remembering in analyses of the prospects for long-term stability in the country.

      Perhaps the most convincing indicator of how centralist ideals pervaded twentieth-century Iraqi political thought is the discourse of the Shiite opposition after the onset of republican pan-Arab and gradually more anti-Shiite rule from the 1960s onwards. Even in this period of brutal state oppression, Shiite oppositionists consistently clung to the vision of a centralised state when they challenged the government of the day. This tendency could be seen for instance in 1965, when the Shiite intellectual Muhammad Rida al-Shabibi presented a list of Shiite demands to improve the regime of Abd al-Salam Arif. Shabibi tackled head-on the issue of decentralisation, but rendered it as a measure suitable only for the Kurdish areas. His demands on the part of the Shiites, on the other hand, concerned reforms at the level of the unitary state: more democratic conditions for trade unions, the implementation of Islamic personal status law, and a more just tax regime. Not only did he perpetuate the centralist logic, he enthusiastically applauded it, for instance when he spoke of the virtues of a national Iraqi oil company.(7)

     This tendency of support for the centralist and unitary state model persisted even beyond 1991 and the traumatic anti-Baath uprising of that year – and despite the fact that it was the regime’s exploitation and abuse of the concept of centralism that had enabled it to engage in military folly in Kuwait. Shiite Muslims, who suffered disproportionally as the uprising was brutally quelled, did not abandon the vision of a unitary state when they in exile renewed their planning for a post-Baath future. Indeed, much of the internal troubles of the Iraqi opposition in the 1990s were caused by Shiite unwillingness to accept autonomy demands by Kurds who now more uniformly than before propagated federalism as the ideal future structure of government. An influential Shiite oppositionist like Ali Allawi in this period presented a list of 36 Shiite reform demands without even touching on the issue of territorial decentralisation, whereas persons close to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) went out of their way to refute allegations of Shiite designs on southern Iraq as an autonomous area – an idea frequently floated by foreign think-tanks at the time.(8) And even in the context of Shiite–Kurdish rapprochement in 2002, when the prospect of a US-led war against Iraq became more likely and a growing number of Iraqis began paying lip service to the federalism idea, most Iraqi exile politicians stuck to the orthodox position that key areas of administration like the oil sector should remain the preserve of the central government also in the future. Concepts like “regional ownership of oil and gas resources” were seen as heretic as late as in December 2002; only certain Kurdish circles flirted with such ideas at the time.

After 2003: the end of centralist ideals?

In this historical perspective, centralism and the unitary state model in Iraq appear as concepts that may well have been introduced by the British, but also as something that was quickly endorsed by huge segments of the population – Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Christians, Jews (before 1948) and Turkmens. Only in the Kurdish area has the resistance against centralism been relatively continuous – and most consistently so in the Sulaymaniyya region.

     Because of the important role played by the Kurds in the Iraqi opposition in the period leading up to the Iraq War, the concept of “federalism” – and with it the question of the legitimacy of the established centralist state tradition – came to the foreground more forcefully than ever before in Iraqi history after 2003. With regard to the centralism dimension – considered in isolation from the dichotomy of unitary versus federal forms of government – a certain change of atmosphere soon became noticeable:  after 2003, many Iraqis equated “centralism” with the old regime, and “decentralisation” (lamarkaziyya) rapidly turned into something of an innocent buzzword. But with respect to the more basic question about state structure, many analysts were surprised at what they saw as “slowness” among Arab Iraqis in converting to a pro-federal position – despite Kurdish and US insistence on a federal framework for any post-war regime. Shiites who worked with the Americans did acknowledge the concept in a theoretical sense, but without expressing much enthusiasm. More radical Shiite Arabs in fact joined Turkmens in early 2004 in street protests against federalism in the city of Kirkuk, thus echoing the anti-federal position of the Sunni Arabs who before 2003 had been the loudest critics of any kind of tampering with the unitary state structure. And even those few Shiites who were openly pro-federal were careful to stress that it could be implemented in Iraq only on certain conditions: it would have to be a non-sectarian model of federalism, with geography – not sect or race – the basis for future federal entities. The sole federal project launched south of Baghdad in this period was consistent with those criteria and combined the three southernmost provinces of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar only. It was a bid for a regionalist “southern” entity rather than a “Shiite” one.

     Signs of possible changes in this picture did not emerge until the summer of 2005. International media then started to focus on calls made by one of the Shiite factions, SCIRI, for a single unified Shiite sectarian federal entity covering all the territory south of Baghdad down to the Gulf.(9) Many analysts soon concluded that “all the Shiites of Iraq demand a single federal entity and exclusive control of the oil resources in the area”, even though the amount of actual agitation in favour of this particular scheme was quite limited. An alternative interpretation would be to see these initiatives as parenthetical projects in a wider historical context. If Shiite attitudes to federalism are studied over time, it seems clear that the more recent demands for a unified sectarian Shiite federal entity are atypical and even exogenous – and owe much of their prominence to Western journalists who seem drawn towards a simplistic but user-friendly Balkans model of Iraqi politics. Among the Shiite Muslims themselves, enthusiasm for these federal proposals has been much more in doubt. Influential Muqtada al-Sadr has repeatedly rejected any consideration of “federalism in the context of occupation”, and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s emphasis on non-sectarianism and nationalist values is at variance with SCIRI’s ideas about a single Shiite canton.(10) Still, SCIRI has managed to obtain a constitution that puts no limits on the scale of new federal entities, and they have been careful to present their rather hazy federal scheme as a “guarantee against anti-Shiite terrorism” – potentially a vote-winner in a climate of steadily increasing security problems.

     In the immediate aftermath of the December 2005 elections, it looked as if some sort of rally behind a unitary paradigm of government was a distinct possibility in the Arab parts of Iraq, for instance by a return to the original Kurdish proposal for a bi-national federation where there would be no federal subdivisions in the Arab areas. In particular, the lack of universal Shiite attachment to the sectarian variant of federalism appeared to be accentuated: the distribution of deputies showed that pro-federal SCIRI was merely one among several rivalling Shiite factions, and many of its competitors remained sceptical to any kind of federalism south of Baghdad. Moreover, in an internal vote within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) on 12 February 2006, Ibrahim al-Jaafari – widely considered a protagonist for the restoration of a role for the central government – defeated SCIRI’s candidate for the premiership, Adil Abd al-Mahdi; in this contest Jaafari received crucial backing from Sadrists who had earlier presented a concrete proposal to delay the implementation of federalism outside the Kurdish areas until the next parliamentary session, scheduled to start in 2009.

     Such postponement of the federalism issue – if adopted in the constitutional revision planned for 2006 – could have facilitated the transitional process in Iraq in a number of ways. It could have allowed for increased focus on restoring institutions of central government in Baghdad so that Shiites and Sunnis alike could find a meaningful role in the state, whereas genuinely local federal projects (rather than those imposed from above by opportunistic politicians) would have been given time to develop.(11) It would no doubt have appealed to the large sections of the Iraqi masses who do not care a fig for party politics – let alone federalism – in a context when security and jobs are lacking. And to the United States, this could have offered a sensible way out of Iraq. The revision of the constitution could have been completed by mid-summer, and there would have been incentives for the Sunni Arabs to choose participation in government over armed resistance. Not least, this would have been a state model built on firm historical ground, instead of a cave-in to the narrow interests of returned Iraqi exiles – whose principal merit so far has been to create “governing councils” and “interim governments” so ballooning and brimful of party sinecures that they have been quite unable to govern.

     But then other factors intervened. Far from throwing its support behind Jaafari, Washington seemed to signal displeasure with his candidacy. This culminated on 2 April when Condoleezza Rice was despatched to the Iraqi capital and, along with Britain’s Jack Straw, met several times with Jaafari’s defeated competitor, Abd al-Mahdi.(12) Early on, the atmosphere of doubt inspired others among Jaafari’s detractors to launch more direct and sustained attacks. Kurdish aversions against the incumbent Shiite premier were well known and related chiefly to the question of Kirkuk; more surprising was perhaps the criticism that came from Sunni Islamists and from secularists of all denominations – politicians who in principle share Jaafari’s dislike of federal subdivisions in the Arab parts of Iraq and who last October made criticism of federalism the centrepiece of their campaign to reject the new Iraqi constitution.  To make matters worse for Jaafari and the Daawa Party, Western media soon picked up allegations of his being “pro-Iranian” and “hardliner” Islamist – accusations that are quite perplexing in light of the Daawa’s past pragmatism and its track record as perhaps the most consistent Shiite defender of a separate Iraqi identity. And for quite inexplicable reasons, international media attention on the problem of Shiite militias – brought to the fore in the aftermath of the 22 February Samarra bombings – almost exclusively came to focus on Jaafari’s Sadrist friends (Jaafari is himself militia-less), whereas the well-organised SCIRI-affiliated units operating within the Ministry of Interior somehow seemed to escape censure. Whatever the actual course of events behind the mysterious clash between US-backed Iraqi security forces and Sadrists and Daawa supporters at the Mustafa husayniyya in Baghdad on 26 March, its consequences were perfectly clear: it brought out the anti-American troll in the Sadrist camp and served to highlight their differences with Washington at a critical juncture when a brave rapprochement would have been needed instead.

     It is unclear what the motives behind all these manoeuvres may have been. “Predictability”, “professionalism” and the supposed free-market ideas of Abd al-Mahdi aside, it is surprising that the United States should choose as its special partner in Iraq the faction with the most systematic and long-standing ties to Iran – a grouping whose pet project involves the creation of a single sectarian canton from the Gulf to Baghdad, and whose level of parliamentary support is after all no more than some 11%.  There is of course the possibility that a breaking point has been reached for the US administration and that the time-consuming but unrewarding project of rebuilding the central government in practice has been abandoned in favour of seeking some kind of Dayton-style ethno-religious détente – in which case the focus may well shift away from ensuring a national leadership to identifying ethnic community leaders capable of keeping their own houses in order. (Soon after the Shiites began their dalliance with ideas of sectarian federalism last summer, there was a startling surge of policy papers from US think tanks demanding that the Sunnis follow suit.) But in long-term perspective, this kind of state model hardly looks like a healthy recipe for regional stability. And US policy-makers will have miscalculated severely if they believe that Abd al-Mahdi is a Hamid Karzai–like figure who at the drop of a hat can reverse any objectionable decisions by the Shiite clergy, for SCIRI have no established Shiite mujtahid jurists in their own ranks.(13)

     As for the Sunni position, concerns over federalism may have been back-burnered in favour of the irresistible option of encouraging splits in the monster Shiite UIA. It is noteworthy that an alliance between Allawi’s secularists and the two main Sunni groups was discussed as early as January 2006, and it proved remarkably durable and efficient over the subsequent months. First, the UIA seemed to squander its two most statesmanlike candidates for prime minister in a divisive internal contest. And later, Sunni secularists declared the goal of creating an alliance that would comprise secularists, Sunni Islamists, Kurds and defectors from the UIA – a prospect that for a while seemed to acquire a degree of credence when some Shiite independents as well as members of the Fadila Party indicated preparedness to break ranks with the rest of the Shiite coalition.  It certainly appeared like a long shot (at times the Sunni Islamists revealed themselves to be “ethnic” Sunni community politicians who had difficulties working with secular Shiites), but dreams of a non-UIA government could well be the ultimate motive behind all the anti-Jaafari propaganda. If it had succeeded it would have been a pyrrhic victory, and a remake of the curse that has been the problem of almost every Iraqi government since 1920: unwillingness to accord the Shiites real democratic representation.


Jawad al-Maliki

On 21 April 2006 the UIA nominated Jawad al-Maliki as a replacement premier candidate for Jaafari. The nomination seems important to the question of Iraq’s democratic structure in two ways. Firstly, it serves as a reconfirmation of a certain degree of consociationalism in the Iraqi polity, or, more correctly, in its transitional regime. Even though the tortuous process towards a new government has been plagued by foreign interference, it was ultimately the institution of a collective presidency with a two-thirds majority requirement that made the UIA reconsider its prime ministerial candidate, because Jaafari had failed to muster the necessary support outside the Shiite coalition. Significantly, there have been no anti-constitutional “this-is-tyranny-by-the-minority” outbursts by the Shiites or their clergy, even though their interpretations of democracy have so far tended towards a majoritarian (rather than an consociational) approach. Still, this procedure is based on one of the transitional provisions in the constitution (article 134) and it will be in force only for the first parliamentary term; article 67 stipulates that subsequent presidents may be elected without a supermajority and this will trigger quite different dynamics in future cabinet


     Another crucial aspect of Maliki’s nomination is that the UIA now for a second time has produced a premier candidate from a milieu with a centrist position in the question of state structure. The Daawa were at first reluctant to embrace federalism as a principle – they did so only in 2003 – and they have since been careful to emphasise the need for a non-sectarian application of this system of government in Iraq. Maliki, who hails from a small town near Hindiyya (between Hilla and Karbala in central Iraq), was among the first leading Daawa personalities to publicly indicate an open-minded attitude to federalism back in 2002,(15) but as late as in the summer of 2005 he warned local authorities in Karbala that autonomy should not come at the expense of “the centralism of the state”, as this could ultimately lead to the creation of statelets.(16) However, a certain shift of his personal position may have occurred during the course of the summer, when he was deeply involved in the constitutional negotiations and increasingly seemed to fraternise with Kurdish federalists while at the same time dismissing the Sunnis as recalcitrants in the question of state structure. It is therefore somewhat ironic that he replaces Jaafari who has been far more sympathetic to the Sunni view that the Arab areas of Iraq can do without federalism. Still, Maliki has so far not expressed any support for the sectarian federal scheme headed by SCIRI, and he has been elected as representative of a party which supports a vision of a unified multi-ethnic Iraq with a meaningful role for Baghdad as capital. That is a vision which despite daily terrorist attacks is proving remarkably resilient – thanks not least to historical roots that extend much further back in time than many Western observers are prepared to admit.

For more on the struggle between centralist and regionalist forces in southern Iraq, see Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq



1. Ottoman section of the National Archives of Turkey, Istanbul. DH/MUI/5/117/62, telegram from Abd al-Muhsin al-Zuhayr to the Ministry of Interior, 24 July 1910; telegram from Nazim Pasha to the Ministry of Interior, 2 August 1910. Midhat Pasha was governor of the province of Baghdad from 1869 to 1873, at a time when it encompassed both Basra and Baghdad.

2. Ibrahim al-Haydari, ‘Unwan al-majd fi bayan ahwal baghdad wa-al-basra- wa-najd (London: Dar al-Hikma, 1998 reprint edition), pp. 120–121.

3. The issue of domestic challenges to the territorial integrity of Iraq in its early history is covered in Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2005; New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006).

4. Both quotes from Newcastle University Library collections, Gertrude Bell to Hugh Bell, 3 October 1920.

5. National Archives, Kew, London. CO/730/96/C22565, notes from a meeting in the League of Nations held 8 November 1926.

6. Al-Istiqlal no. 536, 19 December 1924.

7. See textual excerpts in Faleh A. Jabar, The Shiite Movement in Iraq (London: Saqi, 1993), pp. 135–137.

8. Ali A. Allawi, ”Iraq and the Rights of the Shia”, undated note from the late 1990s; Hamid al-Bayati, Shiat al-‘iraq bayna al-ta’ifiyya wa-al-shubhat fi al-watha’iq al-sirriyya al-baritaniyya 1963–1966 [The Shiites of Iraq: sectarianism and suspicion in secret British documents, 1963–1966] (London: Al-Rafid, 1997), in particular pp. 229–236.

9. Some confusion has arisen about SCIRI’s exact ideas as regards the ideal number of federal units, because certain mainstream pan-Arab newspapers have at times referred to several federal units south of Baghdad. But SCIRI’s own statements and Hakim’s public speeches have been perfectly clear.  They have, ever since August 2005, consistently referred to a single “Region of the South and the Centre” covering the nine Shiite-majority provinces south of Baghdad. Since late 2005, however, Hakim has sometimes spoken of Baghdad as a federal unit in its own right.

10. For the positions of Sistani and Sadr, see Reidar Visser, Sistani the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism? (Oslo: NUPI, 2006), available at http://historiae.org/sistani.asp

11. Three such projects stand out so far: the regionalisms of Sulaymaniyya (controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK), Arbil–Dahuk (controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP) and Basra–Nasiriyya–Amara (under various Shiite Islamist factions which despite considerable internal disagreements have shown an inclination towards small-scale regional cooperation). On the other hand, and despite an upsurge of unity fanfare lately, the grander project of a single Kurdish region still seems decidedly wobbly, whereas the parallel attempt at establishing a single Shiite unit south of Baghdad remains a mere drawing-board project.

12. It seemed rather undiplomatic that SCIRI’s Abd al-Mahdi and Hakim were accorded so much attention from the United States in this context. True, the former is a vice president, but then again so is Ghazi al-Yawir. Hakim is a member of parliament for Baghdad and currently holds no other official position in the Iraqi government.

13. All the influential Shiite ayatollahs in Iraq apart from Muhammad al-Yaqubi (closely linked to the Fadila Party) stay aloof from party politics; in general they are incorruptible religious heavyweights who pay only limited attention to the views of politicians – however much those politicians claim to be “close to” or “have family ties to” the clergy. Symptomatically, despite the exceedingly long-drawn and painful nature of the internal Shiite negotiations, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani apparently refrained from directly intervening in the struggle over the premiership; had he wished to do so he could easily have imposed a decision by fiat. Instead, he did nothing to stop the bullying of Jaafari, but the ensuing chaos of multiple competing candidates strongly suggests that he also refrained from promoting a specific rival candidate. At most, there seemed to be gentle hints about the general need to speed up the process of forming a government, particularly in April when the negotiations appeared increasingly farcical and when the prospect of a UIA fiasco may have appeared as a realistic threat to Sistani’s reputation for spiritual leadership.

14. Under the standard system, the UIA could easily have installed a president of their own choosing as they would have needed only a few more deputies to obtain a simple parliamentary majority.

15. Interview, Sahr Television (Iran), 24 December 2002.

16. Al-Mada, 13 June 2005.

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