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Unitary State, Federalism or Partition: Poll Data Give Mixed Picture of Iraq South of Baghdad

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

10 April 2007

A recent poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC News, and other leading news organisations has produced a wealth of interesting data on Iraqi public opinion as of early 2007, including views on the ideal state structure for Iraq in the future.

The most important question in the survey with regard to the federalism question reads, “Which of the following structures do you believe Iraq should have in the future?” The respondents were presented with three alternatives: “One unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad”; “Regional states with their own government and a Baghdad federal government”; “A country divided into separate independent states”.

The survey results have appeared in the media in a variety of aggregated formats. For instance, it has been pointed out that the “Shiite community” is divided on the state structure question, with 41% in favour of a unified state, 40% preferring federation, and 19% opting for partition. This means that the Shiites are in the middle on the issue of federalism, less centralist than the Sunnis (97% of whom favour a unitary state) and less separatist than the Kurds (30% of Kurds demand partition and another 49% insist on a federal state structure).

These “Shiite” attitudes to federalism are remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the largest subgroup among the Shiites – 41% – actually indicated a preference for a reversion to a centralised form of government, instead of the system of the current constitution, where federalism is optional and can be triggered by local initiatives in areas seeking autonomy. A fractionally smaller group voiced support for the constitutional formula, whereas partition clearly remains a minority option among the Shiites. The high proportion of Shiite respondents who apparently want to tighten up the provisions for decentralisation in the constitution represents a striking popular reassertion of the ideal of the unitary state in a context where terms like “decentralisation” are de rigueur among political elites. It also makes for an interesting perspective on the manner in which the constitution was adopted back in 2005 and strongly suggests that there may have been a measure of truth in claims that many Iraqis voted in favour of a document with which they were not fully acquainted. It certainly demonstrates the futility of concepts such as “80% solutions” for Iraq, in which it is assumed that Shiite and Kurdish “Yes” votes for the constitution reflect perfect intra-community political consensus among these two groups.

Secondly, it should be stressed that the 40% pro-federal group among the Shiites represents a number of competing federal visions for a future Iraq. Crucially, the questionnaire investigated only attitudes to the general principle of federalism, and not to specific federal formulas. In other words, the aggregate “communal” data (this format is used in the published versions of the poll) do not throw light on questions such as whether there should be a single Shiite region, or several non-sectarian regions, or a bi-national federation of Arabs and Kurds. It is however interesting that for Basra, one of the few areas for which it has been possible to obtain disaggregated data (and an oversample at that), centrifugal forces are stronger than among the Shiites as a whole, with 46% in favour of federalism and 23% seeking outright partition. This is consonant with findings of pro-federal attitudes at the elite level in Basra since 2004. It is also noteworthy that ample evidence from local politics in Basra suggests that “pro-federal” attitudes in this area generally translate into preferences for a small-scale non-sectarian federal unit of Basra only, or of Basra with its two neighbouring governorates. The fact that federalists in Basra are still struggling to get Sunnis and Christians aboard their project also suggests that the Basra Shiite pro-federal segment (as distinct from that of Basra as a geographical area, which also includes non-Shiites) is even bigger than 46%.

The most astonishing disaggregated result is that of Sadr City. Long associated with the Iraqi nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr (whose partisans voted against the October 2006 federalism bill and have cautioned against any implementation of federalism as long as US forces remain in the country), one would have expected this area to contribute to the centralist camp among the Shiites, even if Muqtada’s influence in this vast area may well be exaggerated. However, quite the opposite situation seems to prevail. Pro-federal attitudes are actually more widespread here than in Basra (54%), but even more shocking is the preference voiced for some kind of partition solution – reportedly at 46%.

Evaluating these Sadr City results involves a number of problems. In the first place, there has been some suggestion that security concerns in areas like Sadr City are such that any polling activity in that area is fraught with fundamental difficulties of reliability. The 0% score for “a unified Iraq” is in itself somewhat suspect. But absent any specific indications of foul play, one must assume that the data are reliable, and that 48 adult inhabitants of Sadr City did indeed voice their preference for a divided Iraq. (D3 Systems, who carried out the poll, report a quite rigorous system of supervisor verification of interviews and have specifically commented that this was enforced with regard to Sadr City as well.) What kind of divided Iraq must remain a matter of conjecture though, because Sadr City, unlike Basra, does not have any long-standing pro-federal (let alone separatist) tradition at the elite level. It seems somewhat unlikely, if not completely inconceivable, that the new trend should represent a perfect convergence of opinion between Sadrists and their arch-enemies in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who – like US presidential hopeful Joseph Biden – wish to see all Shiites unified in a single territorial entity. Could “partition” simply mean a farewell to what is seen as troublesome Kurds, with Iraq retaining Kirkuk under central government control – as has been a traditional Sadrist demand? Might it involve a league of Sadrist republics, perhaps inspired by the ideas of Salam al-Maliki, the Basra supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr who back in August 2004 presented the only Sadrist separatist threat on record so far? Are the inhabitants of Sadr City – a majority of whom hail from the far south around Amara and for decades have been denigrated by fellow Baghdadi Shiites for their southern origins – voicing solidarity with local efforts in the south to wrestle control of the oil sources from the central government, in order to preserve them for Shiites who consider themselves discriminated against by other, “northern” Shiites?

For the time being, this cannot be answered satisfactorily. The Sadr City numbers are however peculiar and exceptional enough to suggest that there could be a third distinctive pro-federal or even partitionist trend among the Shiites – driven from below rather than from above – and that this in turn, alongside the small-scale federalism of Basra and the far south, has contributed strongly to the pro-federal segment of Shiites in the poll as a whole. All of this should give pause to those who wish to construe pro-federal rhetoric among the Shiites as a unified call for a single Shiite region. Instead, the existence within the pro-federal “Shiite” segment of at least three distinctive currents in favour of federalism and partition means that the scheme for a single Shiite region may be trailing even in its core constituencies (places like Najaf, Hilla and Diwaniyya) and probably scores below the “Shiite” pro-federal averages – which were augmented primarily by separate pro-federal currents in Basra and Sadr City, and probably also by a certain number of respondents in favour of an Arab–Kurdish federation. Ironically, however, several commentators (including USA Today journalists) went on to construe the aggregate poll results as evidence of growing support for a tripartite federal solution.

These findings should trigger alarm bells. There is a certain development over time from earlier polls (support for the unitary state among Iraqis as a whole is down from around 80% in 2004 and 70% in 2005 to 58% now), and Shiites probably account for the majority of defectors from the centralist camp. That even inhabitants of what has long been seen as a nationalist bastion of Sadr City are considering partition could be a warning that the combined weight of sectarian killings and economic underdevelopment is beginning to translate into unorthodox political demands. Once more, the question of whether the current Iraqi system of government has the capacity to handle yet further challenges of decentralisation has become acutely relevant.

However, from the point of view of political stability, it might be useful to look at the poll findings from the opposite end of the spectrum. The largest group among the Shiites still favours a return to a unitary system of government. The Shiite federalist camp is divided into a number of subgroups and thus represents different (and probably negotiable) positions rather than a hardened, unified front. And the assumed leaders of one of these subgroups – Muqtada al-Sadr and, to a lesser extent, Muhammad al-Yaqubi for Sadr City – remain nominally Iraqi nationalist. Accordingly, if these poll data adequately reflect Iraqi public opinion, it should in theory still be possible to engineer a constitutional compromise that could bring a larger number of Iraqis back into the political process. Elements worthy of consideration for this kind of package include a moratorium on federalism south of Kurdistan (ten years to give the central government a chance to perform under more normal circumstances?), a size limit on federal entities (1 to 3 governorates?) and “softer” methods for addressing the concerns of the oil-rich governorates in the far south who do not trust a Shiite-dominated government headed by Baghdadis (for instance by way of a UN-led commission to help equalise patterns of underdevelopment that emerged under the previous regime). A bilateral US–Iraqi deal with a timetable for withdrawal in exchange for a revised constitution could also bring the Sadrists back into the process. In light of the findings in this poll, engagement with the Sadrists (who are grossly underrepresented on the constitutional revision committee) seems particularly important right now, before their radicalism turns even more anarchic.

Unfortunately, however, the process of revising the Iraqi constitution has seen scant progress lately. Instead, the dominant trend seems to be towards “piecemeal” reconciliation, where a troublesome oil bill has been accorded top priority, and where the new zest for regional conferences – however laudable this may be in itself – could threaten to become a diversion that might reduce the Iraqi national reconciliation efforts to a procession of ineffectual tea parties. Those who advocate regionalisation as the main track for Iraq have yet to explain why the elites behind the 2005 constitution – the two Kurdish parties as well as SCIRI, one of the Shiite parties – should suddenly wish to abandon their maximalist claims just because a few neighbouring states begin sending representatives to regional symposia. The hard reality is that some kind of creative and constructive process involving the resources of the US military presence as a negotiating chip may still be the only way to rouse the most obstinate of Iraq’s leaders and induce them to act in a truly national fashion.

This analysis is based on disaggregated data from the BBC & ABC News poll of early 2007. The aggregated data are publicly available here, along with a note on methodology.

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