Basra, the Failed Gulf State, Part II: Wail Abd al-Latif Concedes Defeat
By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
17 January 2009
Wail Abd al-Latif, the chief protagonist of the campaign to transform Basra into a standalone federal region, has told Iraqi radio that his project has failed. While Abd al-Latif did not know the exact numbers of signatures collected since the legally fixed month-long campaign period started on 15 December 2008 (and at a time when the Iraqi elections commission has not yet released any results and there were even rumours to the effect that the deadline had been extended with a few days), this declaration by the principal advocate of the scheme seems to be a certain indication that the goal of mustering 140,000 signatures in favour of the project – the precondition for a referendum – is unachievable at present. Abd al-Latif is already talking about the possibility of re-launching his scheme at some future juncture, and his comments echo statements to the press by another supporter of the project, Muhammad al-Zaydawi, to the effect that the required number of signatures had not been reached by 11 January.
This failure shows two things. Firstly, to the extent that there is an interest in federalism in Iraq south of Baghdad at present, such sentiments are concentrated in Basra in the far south, and focus on non-sectarian schemes for transforming Basra into a small federal region that would be defined by its geography and history, not by the Shiite religion of the majority of its inhabitants. Since 2005, there has been much fanfare about the grander designs of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and their plans to create a nine-governorate federal region extending all the way from Basra to Baghdad (though lately more so in the Western media than in Iraq itself, perhaps with the exception of Najaf); it seems significant that the only scheme that so far has been translated into a degree of practical politics is the Basra project with its far more local outlook. Secondly, the Basra scheme itself, while clearly the preference of a group of local politicians that combines secularists and Islamists, is not immensely popular among the people of Basra at large. We now have a quantitative indicator of the true level of popular support: it is somewhere between the 2 per cent of the electorate that turned in the first 30,000 plus signatures required to get the initiative going and the 10 per cent of the electorate that the federalists were unable to mobilise between 15 December 2008 and 15 January 2009.
The fate of the Basra federalist initiative comes across as a fascinating replay of events that unfolded in Basra in the early 1920s. At the time, a small, cross-sectarian elite of merchants – including Najdi Sunnis, Christians, Jews and a few Shiites including some Persian merchants – launched a bid to transform Basra into a Gulf statelet under British protection, akin to Kuwait. However, the separatist leaders failed to attract London’s interest, and, equally significant, did not manage to mobilise popular support among the rural Shiite Arab majority of Basra and the young intellectual elite of the city (which was multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian in composition). The federalism initiative of Abd al-Latif is of course different in that it does not envisage separation, but instead aims at achieving a special status for Basra within Iraq, similar to Kurdistan. But the reasons for failure seem very similar in the two cases. Firstly, neither the Basra separatists of the 1920s nor the Basra federalists that have emerged since 2003 managed to present an identity project that resonated with the local population and was able to compete with Iraqi nationalism. Indeed, these leaders’ own desire to hang on to Iraqi nationalism is probably a limiting factor for their project overall. They criticise the Kurds for not flying the Iraqi flag, maintain that Baghdad should remain in control of the oil sector (though perhaps with some kind of special share of the income for Basra as Iraq’s main producing governorate), and portray their scheme as a strategy for saving Iraq’s unity by forestalling any moves by ISCI to create a nine-governorate federal region that would be loyal to Iran. Secondly, the failure of today’s federalists to dominate the public space and the media with compelling arguments in favour of the scheme (in fact, much of the propaganda has been limited to the rather uninspiring vision of additional layers of local bureaucracy that could give more jobs to the area) is a striking echo of similar problems seen in the separatist efforts in the 1920s. Instead, Wail Abd al-Latif and his supporters were on the defensive from day one of the initiative, criticising the elections commission for not providing a sufficient number of polling stations across Basra and for a lack of adequate information about the initiative for the general public. In a sign of desperation, a committee that supports the project at one point undemocratically declared itself the sole legitimate point of contact regarding the federalism scheme. These hapless manoeuvres are all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the party that controls the governor position in Basra, Fadila, has generally supported the bid, even if its leaders may have sensed the turn of the tide and have been less intimately associated with the campaign lately, the governor himself preferring to show up with the Iraqi national football team in Oman.
Basra federalists are still debating among themselves whether the negative result of the initiative constitutes failure in its own right (fashal) or a case of someone else having caused its failure (ifshal). At any rate, it seems important that the project was an anti-establishment attempt at doing something radical about the political system in Iraq. Few doubt the anti-Iranian agenda of Abd al-Latif and Fadila, but many Iraqi nationalists disagree with the tactics adopted by the Basra federalists in their attempt at stopping the steadily growing Iranian influences in Iraq (and also suspect a degree of involvement by a player that wants neither a strong Iran nor a strong Iraq: Kuwait). But while Basra popular opinion clearly has shown its disdain for federalism projects more generally (resistance to the project was framed chiefly in nationalist terms; counter-propaganda in defence of a slightly larger micro-region covering the triangle Basra/Maysan/Dhi Qar seemed more limited), a potential problem with the current federalism legislation is that once new governorate councils are elected on 31 January, it becomes far easier to launch ever more federalism referendums on the basis of the consent of a mere third of the members of the affected governorate councils. This opens the door for backdoor politics of the kind ISCI excels at, and while creating a nine-governorate region in one go may prove too complicated, the lax law on federalisation that was adopted in October 2006 allows for a gradual process that could slowly change the administrative map of Iraq and weaken the concept of a unified state.
What, then, is the best hope for the many Basrawis who through their rejection of the Basra federalism bid have shown themselves in favour of an Iraqi framework for the future? They can of course vote for nationalist parties in the upcoming provincial elections (or, more specifically, parties that have practical nationalist agendas at a time when everyone in Iraq south of Kurdistan pays lip service to the concept of Iraqi unity, with even ISCI often feeling compelled to substitute “decentralisation” for “federalism”). Some evidently believe “the new Nuri al-Maliki” to be one of these nationalists, even though despite certain credentials as a centralist, in the past he has been remarkably reluctant when it comes to doing the only thing that could stop the current circus of unlimited federalism from sucking all the energy out of Iraqi politics in the coming decade: to facilitate institutional reform in the shape of a revised constitution. Also, if Maliki has serious intentions about a definitive break with Iran and moving beyond the hated politics of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing between political parties (muhasasa), it would have been more reassuring if his new electoral coalition had included a greater array of prominent candidates from outside the Shiite Islamist core. Hopefully, Iraqis will study carefully how their parliamentarians choose to pursue the ongoing process of appointing a new parliamentary speaker, where the parties favouring a general decentralisation of Iraq (ISCI plus the two Kurdish parties) are hard at work defining the vacancy as a “Sunni” post against any possible challenges from a nationalist candidate. In doing so, they appear to have the support of the international press (which has covered the issue as an intra-Sunni quarrel), as well as the United States (one of whose officials today found it necessary to leak to The Washington Post that the pro-federal parties supposedly enjoy the support of 142 parliamentarians to oust Maliki). Of course, the popular support and numerical influence in parliament of these parties are routinely inflated in conversations between them and the Americans (they have not won a real parliamentary victory since the federalism bill was adopted in October 2006), but votes are not the only thing that counts in Iraqi politics these days. To the new Obama administration, the challenge is to interpret the failed Basra initiative correctly: what it really means is a rejection of federalism (meaning, at this time, any kind of federalism) in Iraq south of Kurdistan – even in the most fertile ground that exists, and including the tripartite soft partition schemes with which some Democratic politicians have been associated in the past.
Older articles on this topic:
For a discussion of the relative influence of regionalism and nationalism in Basra, see Basra Crude: The Great Game of Iraq’s “Southern” Oil, p. 10.
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