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Excerpts from Chapter 1, “Introduction” by Reidar Visser in An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (edited by Reidar Visser and Gareth Stansfield and published by Hurst & Columbia University press, 2007)


This book focuses on a subject which al-Qaida supporters hope will never come on the agenda, and one which the Bush administration and much of international public opinion has yet to discover: Iraqi regionalism.

Regionalism is an approach that puts geography centre stage. It is a sentiment that brings together citizens of a given territory despite other social factors that may set them apart, like language or religious sect. To regionalists, it makes more sense to cooperate closely with people from their own area, regardless of ethnicity, than with co-religionists or speakers of their own language living further afield. In this way, regionalism constitutes a mode of thinking that can serve to defuse ethnic and sectarian conflict in societies where there is a high degree of ethno-religious complexity.

Many will be surprised to learn that regionalism exists in Iraq at all. Journalists reporting from Iraq after 2003 have overwhelmingly employed ethnic lenses for reading Iraqi politics: Iraq is supposedly made up of three ‘main groups’ – the Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds. Growing indications of tension between these communities after 2003 have been taken as evidence that these groups are indeed the basic components of Iraqi society, and that any viable political system would need to build upon them to ensure future stability. Even though the Kurds are the only group in Iraq that has in fact made consistent demands for ethnic autonomy, many Western observers jumped to conclusions as soon as a small group of Shiites in the summer of 2005 announced that they aimed at a ‘single Shiite federal region’. Instantly, this was construed this as a ‘massive’ Shiite demand for federalism along sectarian lines, and many analysts went on to demand that Iraqi Sunnis should start ‘thinking in terms of federalism’.

Iraqi realities are however far more complex than this. To many Iraqis, the ethno-religious community is but one of several possible foci of identity. Historically, in many parts of the country, it has also been a rather marginal one. Instead, villages, towns and regions have shaped identities: people of southern Iraq, for instance, often think of themselves as ‘Qurnawis’ or ‘Basrawis’ or just ‘Southerners’ rather than as ‘Shiites’ or ‘Sunnis’. Similar patterns prevail in many parts of western Iraq, where imported concepts from the international media like ‘the Sunni triangle’ have only limited resonance among a population whose habit is to use terms like ‘Tikritis’ or ‘Fallujis’ or ‘Rawis’ (all references to local town names) to describe their own identity. Even in the Kurdish areas – frequently highlighted for the strength of the ethnic component in local identity politics – there is an interesting dualism between ethnic and regional approaches to the definition of Kurdistan, with some Kurdish elites keen to stress their apartness from the wider Kurdish world which also encompasses areas in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

A closer look at the politics of Iraq since 2003 reveals the fascinating pervasiveness of regional identities in Iraq, even in the face of an increasingly hostile environment where foreign forces such as al-Qaida have sought to maximise the drive towards sectarianism. Among the Shiites, for instance, the first tentative pro-federal efforts followed precisely a regionalist formula – not a sectarian one. Based in the triangle of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar in the extreme south of Iraq, a project was launched in 2004 to amalgamate these three (mainly Shiite) provinces into an oil-rich federal entity that would have left the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiites (who live to the north) without much oil. The project continued to flourish in 2006, and formed an important but often overlooked dimension of the internal Shiite struggle that prompted Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki (himself a Shiite from central Iraq) to send troops to Basra as one of his first ministerial actions in May 2006. Similarly, in the area often described by Westerners as the ‘Sunni heartland’, attempts by US think tanks and advisers to encourage a territorial ‘Sunni’ entity have met with marked resistance. The mediocre local response to this federalism propaganda drive has almost universally been explained (again, by outsiders) with reference to the absence of energy resources in this region and the supposed lack of incentives for pro-federal attitudes. But elsewhere in the world, areas that are far poorer than the Iraqi north-west have produced vibrant secessionist and pro-federal movements. There is much to suggest that one factor impeding the crystallisation of a ‘Sunni’ region is territorial attachment to smaller units – often towns rather than whole regions as such. (Lately, foreign Islamists have become another advocacy group for a ‘Sunni’ region, but they too have met with resistance by their native brethren.) As for Kurdistan, many analysts argue that what was formerly often described as ‘internal regional tensions’ between eastern and western parts of Kurdistan are now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the process of establishing a Kurdistan region within a federated Iraq is in itself an act of regionalism: Kurdish leaders thereby seek a pragmatic role for themselves as Kurds within an Iraqi federation, separate from the much wider Kurdish world, and at least partially in opposition to pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment that calls for Kurdish unification on a far larger scale.

This volume takes Iraqi regionalism seriously. Instead of dismissing regionalism as a residual category forever consigned to a secondary role in Iraqi history and subordinate to ‘primordial’ ethnic identities, we take a long view of Iraqi history and put Iraqi regionalism in focus. The great potential of the regions as building blocks for the future Iraq is that, in addition to being comparatively untainted ideologically, they have historical depth. They represent a historical longue durée that might serve as antidote to savage sectarian warfare (whose history in Iraq is far more episodic) and its perversions of traditional religious doctrine. Not least they could function as beacons for the wider region, dispelling fears of ‘Shiite Crescents’ and perpetual ethno-sectarian conflict in the Middle East. However, not all parts of Iraq are equally well endowed with strong regional legacies. Any realistic effort to capitalise on the regions as a resource in the democratic restructuring of Iraq must take into account this historical imbalance within Iraq. Clearly there are ‘regions’ (as defined by outsiders) which in reality have seen only scant tendencies of regionalism, and where competing concepts of identity dominate – often tribe, town or sect, but also well-developed large-scale nationalisms, whether ‘Iraqi’, ‘pan-Arab’, or ‘pan-Kurdish’.

The realities of regionalism in Iraq in turn have consequences for constitutional questions and issues relating to the design of Iraq’s political system. Those few foreign experts who have looked beyond the ethno-religious paradigm for a federal Iraq have tended to tout Spain as a model, with its combination of unitary and federal elements in the same system, and with popular initiatives ‘from below’ the mechanism for demarcating its administrative map. On the surface the Spanish model seems eminently suitable for Iraq – a polity whose regions differ strongly with regard to the strength of local patriotism, and where there are various degrees of competition from other forces such as sectarianism or tribalism. At the same time, however, it is clear that there are enormous discrepancies between Spain and Iraq. In Iraq, those regions that are identifiable today are not as well entrenched as their counterparts in Spain were in the late 1970s. Iraqi politicians disagree a lot more than the Spaniards did about exactly what are the historical regions of their country. In order to employ regions as a middle-of-the-road solution for a new decentralised Iraq, Iraqis must make sure that their mechanisms for forming new regions in a federal system are attuned to the highly complex legacies of their collective past. If Iraq is to successfully combine nationalist and regionalist legacies in a single polity, a minimum of checks and balances will be required.



[pp. 17–26]

Regionalism in the Iraqi constitution

However much foreign experts and advisors have sought to reject Iraq’s regional legacy, Iraq’s constitution of 2005 recognises it. Despite the dominance during the constitutional drafting process of three parties that advocated an ethno-religious structuring of the new Iraqi federation (Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI), there was never any attempt to enshrine this kind of state model in the constitution except through recognition of Kurdistan as a separate region. Probably this was so simply because even these pro-federal parties were realistic enough to anticipate negative popular reactions in the other parts of the country. Instead, the new political system in Iraq south of Kurdistan is to be built ‘from below’, through referenda, with the existing governorates as building blocks. Essentially, each governorate can choose between two options: to remain in their current status, as a decentralised unit within a unitary state framework, or to become a region (iqlim) – either in its own right as a uni-governorate region, or through combining with other governorates. There are no size limits on the formation of region, but under no circumstances can Baghdad become part of a greater region.

The law for the formation of regions, adopted in October 2006, specifies this procedure in greater detail. The most ambivalent point in the constitution concerns the mechanisms for forming regions of more than one governorate in cases where several competing visions prevail: some in Basra may want to join with neighbouring Dhi Qar and Maysan; again others may be eyeing a larger federal unit. This is resolved in the detailed legislation, which stipulates that in the case of several competing initiatives (these can be made either by one tenth of the electorate or one third of the governorate council members), a pre-referendum poll will be held in each governorate to decide which regional vision will be put to the vote in a referendum. In order to succeed, a federal initiative must win this stage in every governorate concerned and then receive an absolute majority in the subsequent referendum – again in each of the governorates targeted in the regional initiative.

In practice this means that forming big regions will be quite difficult, and that smaller regions will have a greater chance for success. True, there are certain factors that play into the hands of those with grand designs: failed federalisation attempts can be given another chance once every year (in contrast to the comparable system of Spain where there is a five-years moratorium on this sort of exercise), and there is no demand for territorial contiguity (another contrast with Spain) – meaning that larger regions may repeatedly try to squeeze unyielding governorates into accepting a federal formula. But on the other hand, once formed a region may not combine with other regions (this amendment was introduced during the parliamentary debate of the law), and due to the requirement for unanimity in all governorates concerned by a federal initiative, it is highly likely that one or more permanent ‘gaps’ will be established in some of the large-scale regional visions that are tentatively being floated today. The constitution itself could become an incentive for regionalism: again there is the Spanish precedent, where the creation of the uni-provincial regions of La Rioja and Cantabria – deemed ‘artificial’ by those who take an orthodox approach to the idea of ‘historical’ regions – showed that regional identities may also be constructed under certain circumstances, if not entirely from scratch. Other legislative acts, such as a new petroleum law, may become another stimulant for small-scale regionalism in Iraq.

At the level of state structure, then, regionalism is bound to become ever more important in Iraq when the implementation of federalism starts in 2008. Of course, one possible outcome would be the conversion of one or more existing governorates into new uni-governorate regions. However, some of these governorates possess only a limited sense of historical identity. Indeed, many of the governorate names in use during the decades of Baathist rule are already being replaced, mostly with new references to the provincial capital cities as governorate names. The limited enthusiasm for the US proposal launched in 2003 to build an Iraqi federation of the existing eighteen governorates may have had to do with this factor.
Whereas some Iraqi governorates may simply prefer to remain in their current status (as part of the unitary state in an asymmetrical federal system), it is quite likely that others will look for partners to form medium-sized entities. By late 2006, even politicians sympathetic to the idea of grand sectarian federal units expressed the view that the successful formation of such large-scale entities was distinctly unrealistic given the legal complexities involved. Accordingly, the question of meso-level regional identities will become ever more acute in Iraq. Which are the geographical formations of Iraq that can be expected to prove durable over time, as federal units? In which part of the country are such ideas about regional identity likely to trump Iraqi nationalism and the idea of staying within the unitary state structure as ‘ordinary’ governorates? And where can sectarianism or ethnic ideology be expected to prevail? These are questions that we try to shed light on in this book.

Structure of the book

The book starts with a chapter on the geographical area often referred to in international media as ‘southern Iraq’. ‘The Two Regions of Southern Iraq’ shows that the idea of a single ‘southern’ and ‘Shiite’ region of Iraq is primarily a Western construct. Instead, two other trends have historically dominated in Shiite areas south of Baghdad. The first is the non-territorial universalism of the higher ranks of the Shiite clergy, who have tended to aspire to a leadership role for Sunnis and Shiites alike, and whose public pronouncements have by and large offered support for existing state structures. The second historical trend south of Baghdad is regionalism, a concept cultivated by tribal leaders, secularists and the lower-ranking Shiite clergy. Two distinctive regional currents have appeared: one concentrated in the far south and corresponding to the old Ottoman province of Basra; another appealing to the idea of a ‘Euphrates’ identity (rather than a ‘southern’ one) and with a focus on central Iraq around the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Both trends were visible during the British mandate – in Basra, as a scheme for the separation of the far south as a pro-British mercantile protectorate, and on the Euphrates as a campaign for local decentralised authority (lamarkaziyya) – and both resurged within a year after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The idea about sectarian contiguity in a single federal Shiite unit from Basra to Baghdad, on the other hand, is a far more recent project. Since 2005, extraordinary developments in the Iraq War have propelled this vision to a certain prominence – certainly in the international media – but today it is still being challenged by Shiites who prefer small-scale solutions more in tune with the strong regionalist heritages of the areas south of Baghdad.

Chapter 3 turns to Baghdad and the ‘capital region’ of Iraq. Fanar Haddad and Sajjad Rizvi investigate how inhabitants of Baghdad relate to the mounting debate about federalism for the regions that used to form their vast hinterland. In general, the authors find widespread scepticism towards federalism as a political model for Iraq – a sentiment that exists in equal measure in Sunni and Shiite districts of the capital. To most Baghdadis, despite the steep escalation of sectarian violence during 2006, Iraqi nationalism remains the most popular overall paradigm for political reform in Iraq. The territorial shell of the state is not challenged as such; it is on the definition of Iraqiness that sectarian sentiments clash. The place of Baghdad in all of this is viewed accordingly. Baghdad is seen as a united capital city rather than as a cake that legitimately can be partitioned – whether by greedy ‘regional’ neighbours, or for transformation into one or more decentralised metropolitan regions. The weak sense of Baghdad regionalism identified in this chapter may also be of relevance to other parts of Iraq where competing visions of Iraqi nationalism prevail (such as Diyala), or where Iraqi nationalism clashes with Kurdish nationalism (for instance in Kirkuk). Even though battles for sectarian hegemony within a single nationalist framework may be just as bloody as those between two or more competing nationalisms, it is of critical importance to questions concerning territory and state structure that the distinction between these two phenomena is well understood. Haddad and Rizvi’s findings are a timely reminder that it may be counterproductive to try to enforce an all-encompassing, “symmetrical” federal model on the whole of Iraq. The Iraqi constitution actually allows for considerable flexibility in this regard (only regions with a strong desire for autonomy will need to opt out of the unitary state structure), but in the West this nuance is poorly understood. Most Westerners with an interest in Iraq’s federalism question run against the wind by their insistence on universal conversion to pro-federal attitudes among all Iraqis, instead of accepting the widespread scepticism to radical devolution that exists in many parts of Iraq, such as Baghdad.

Chapter 4 moves on to the situation north of Baghdad. Ronen Zeidel shows how in Salahaddin province, regional identity is in reality town identity. By the early twentieth century, a distinctive urban patriotism had crystallised in the small town of Tikrit on the Tigris, and formed the basis for a separate identity that distinguished Tikritis from their neighbours in Samarra and more distant river towns like Mosul. Symbolically, this Tikrit sense of identity was founded upon an ancient Christian heritage, common tribal ancestry, the notion of Tikrit as a sanctuary in a hostile environment and the Tigris as the artery of the local economy. Gradually, during the course of the twentieth century, people from Tikrit turned this local patriotism and solidarity into a means for meteoric advancement in the institutions of the modern state of Iraq, to the point where they became the true ruling elite under Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. In the course of this process, they substituted pan-Arabism for regionalism as ideology; in terms of solidarity, ever more narrow patterns of tribalism replaced the original civic focus on the urban population as a whole. After 2003, however, Tikrit’s legacy as Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and recruitment ground for his regime has become a burden for the inhabitants of the region. Their Tikrit regionalism has been tainted due to its past connections with the Baathist regime, and so far few alternatives of a wider regional scope have emerged. Like many other Sunni-majority towns in Iraq, Tikrit is increasingly leaning towards a sectarian identity, but without translating this into a demand for a separate territorial space.

Connecting the region: bridge construction at Mosul during the British mandate

Quite similar patterns prevail further to the west, in the borderlands towards Syria that are covered in James Denselow’s chapter. Denselow focuses on the arbitrary character of the Anglo-French twentieth-century border demarcation in this historical region – often referred to as al-Jazira or ‘the island’ – which effectively bisected what had formerly been a contiguous economic zone linking the upper Euphrates towns and Mosul in Iraq with Dayr al-Zur, Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria. In many ways, transnational sentiment cutting across the border has survived until modern times, with close links between ‘Syrian’ and ‘Iraqi’ branches of the same family or tribe still remaining strong. Nevertheless, as in the case of Tikrit, this is a regional sentiment that does not seek expression primarily in a quest for a special homeland or autonomous region. Rather, it is the resumption of normal ties within an ancient socio-economic region that has been the main demand historically. Today, the contentious issue of normalising Syrian–Iraqi relations remains convoluted due to problems of border smuggling and persisting disagreement between Syria and US military authorities in Iraq about the role of the border region as a transit zone for Islamic militants en route to western Iraq. Hanna Batatu explained political radicalism in Mosul with reference to the suppression of latent regional feelings; perhaps today’s unsatisfactory conditions along the Syrian–Iraqi border may account for much of the pan-Arab and anti-Iraq government attitudes found in the north-western part of the country and in the Anbar governorate.

Chapter 6 heads further north, beyond the plains and into the mountainous Kurdistan region. Gareth Stansfield and Hashem Ahmadzadeh trace an interesting project by Kurdish elites to define Kurdistan in Iraq in non-ethnic terms, as a homeland not only for the Kurds, but for all the peoples inhabiting the area – including minorities of Assyrians, Yazidis, and Turkmens. Both leading Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, have made determined efforts to define versions of a civic form of nationalism in which Kurds would focus on their region inside Iraq rather than on their ethnic links with the wider Kurdish world in the neighbouring countries. Stansfield and Ahmadzadeh argue that this regionalist approach is increasingly coming under pressure, especially from the grassroots level in Kurdish politics, where support for Kurdish nationalism, often in a pan-Kurdish variant, is fast becoming the dominant trend. In Kurdistan today, regionalism and ethnic nationalism largely overlap; the key question for the future will be to what extent the balance tips towards an ethnic definition of Kurdistan, with possible consequences for the Kurds’ relations with neighbours like Syria, Turkey and Iran, and with implications for areas claimed as Kurdish irredenta within Iraq, such as Mosul and Kirkuk.

The subject of Iraq itself as one of the most persistent ‘regions’ of Iraq is discussed by Alastair Northedge in Chapter 7. No understanding of the remarkable endurance of Iraqi nationalism after 2003 is possible without an appreciation of the antiquity of ‘Iraq’ as a geographical concept. Tracing its roots from ancient Mesopotamian civilisations, Northedge shows how Iraq as a geographical term became firmly established in the classical Islamic age, and tended to connote the area from Basra in the south to Samarra in the north – beyond which lay the Jazira region. Punctuated as its history may have been by regionalist episodes on a smaller scale, ‘Iraq’ remained a meaningful category to travellers and cartographers – occidental and oriental – right up until modern times. To a considerable extent, this historicity and heritage may help account for the staying power of Iraqi nationalism in Iraqi regions that have seen little in the way of resurgent regionalisms: the central Tigris areas around Kut, Baquba and Kirkuk to the north-east of Baghdad, as well as the capital region itself and much of western Iraq.

To what extent is this tentative system of ‘nationalist’ and ‘regionalist’ zones in Iraq locked in place? Where is the external fence strong and where is it weak? These are questions addressed by Richard Schofield in Chapter 8. Schofield traces the historical evolution of the external boundaries of Iraq, and shows how Britain had a dominant role in designating the exact outer lining of the Iraqi regional core. Iraq inherited boundaries with Iran and Kuwait from agreements that date back to Ottoman days, whereas Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey were negotiated on its behalf by Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The period after 2003 has witnessed increased militarisation and securitisation of the borders with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular, and with gradually stronger attempts to seal the Syrian border. Conversely, less has been done to control the Iranian border to the east. As a consequence of the situation described by Schofield, trans-border regionalism – particularly strong in the Jazira region towards Syria – is not allowed to freely express itself in the west of the country. In the south, small-scale regionalism faces at least two possible scenarios: it could become subjected to the growing threat of heavy-handed manipulation by Iran and its partners in some of the Iraqi Shiite political parties, but there is also the possibility of a more positive way forward, with a defusing of tensions and full restoration of the borderland component in the historical southern region – which always had close links to the heterogeneous, mostly Arab population of south-western Iran.

In Chapter 9, Liam Anderson bridges the regional map of Iraq with political science theory in the field of federalism. The chapter provides an overview of different approaches to the issue of territorial demarcation of federal units, and charts a continuum that ranges from purely ethnic models (as for instance in Ethiopia since the 1990s) to aggressively anti-ethnic formulas (as attempted in the demarcation of some of Nigeria’s federal states). Anderson posits ‘regional federalism’ as a compromise alternative, whose chief virtue is that it ‘ignores ethnicity’. Regional federalism – exemplified by cases like Spain, Italy and South Africa – neither encourages nor combats ethnic identity. In theory it should be well suited to the kind of political configuration described in this volume for today’s Iraq: an Iraq of two non-ethnic regions south of Baghdad; a largely nationalist zone from Baghdad to the West (preferring the unitary state model and hoping for a normalisation of border relations with Syria to allow for a ‘softer’, non-territorial expression of Jazira regionalism); and with another area of strong regionalism in Kurdistan, where regionalism coexists with powerful Kurdish nationalist sentiment. The gradual implementation of federalism in Iraq from 2008 onwards will show how theory fits Iraqi realities.

In the concluding Chapter 10, Gareth Stansfield charts possible future scenarios that could become relevant if the current Iraqi constitutional process should derail completely. This danger is very real. Especially among critics of the Bush administration in the United States, there is only limited respect for the Iraqi constitutional process as such, and a growing conviction that a more crudely designed federation of three ethnic communities is the best method for extricating US forces from Iraq. Stansfield shows how in a worst-case scenario the city of Kirkuk (possibly followed by Mosul) might turn into the orifice through which ‘Balkans logics’ could become entrenched in Iraqi politics. Much will probably depend on how Kurdish elites choose to navigate in the near future. It is possible that they will discover how maximalism over Kirkuk and Mosul will almost automatically push them towards a pan-Kurdish logic which ultimately could threaten their own small-scale fiefdom(s) of Kurdistan in Iraq. On the other hand, if they persevere – and Stansfield and Ahmadzadeh’s analysis clearly points to pressures in this direction from the Kurdish grassroots level – this sort of scenario could lead to a situation entirely antithetical to the vision of an Iraq based on geographical regions.

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Copyright © 2007 Reidar Visser