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Suffering, Oil, and Ideals of Coexistence: Non-Sectarian Federal Trends in the Far South of Iraq

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

[Paper presented to the MESA 2007 annual meeting, Montreal, November 17–20
Panel (P099) The Implementation of Federalism in Iraq: The Internal Debate]

Among the numerous fallacies that have become widespread in analyses of today’s Iraq is the notion that the Shiites of the country are unified in demanding the establishment of a sectarian federal entity, a Shiite super-state. And even though some studies at least acknowledge the internal Shiite division between anti-federal Iraqi nationalist and supporters of federalism, few bother to examine important sub-divisions inside the pro-federal camp. In many accounts there simply is only one Shiite federal vision of the future: iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub (the Region of the Center and the South), covering all the nine Shiite-majority governorates to the south of the Iraqi capital.1

     In reality, the Region of the Center and the South was a latecomer to the Iraqi Shiite debate on federalism. A few Shiites tentatively grappled with federalism as early as in the 1990s, but always in a non-sectarian framework. And when concrete plans for federalism materialized in Shiite circles in late 2003, this was on the basis of a cross-sectarian civic platform. Only in the summer of 2005 did a sectarian variant of federalism emerge – but, despite colossal media interest in the West, it has yet to establish itself as the dominant federal project in Shiite circles in Iraq.

     This paper focuses on non-sectarian incarnations of federalism among Iraq’s Shiites, with a special focus on the far south of the country: the triangle Basra–Nasiriyya–Amara.2 Since 2004, federal mobilization in this region has taken place on a political platform that can be described as non-sectarian, if not always directly anti-sectarian. Three components in southern regionalist identity will be highlighted here: the idea of southern suffering during the course of history; the sense of special regional entitlement to the gigantic petroleum resources of the area; and the tentative efforts to provide these sentiments with a pluralistic ideological superstructure. The main conclusion is that, among Iraq’s Shiites, the non-sectarian approach to federalism has firmer historical roots than the sectarian one, but is increasingly coming under pressure not least due to a strange convergence of interest among three major external players in Iraq – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Iran.


Non-sectarianism in the Iraqi federalist tradition

Federalist pioneers have been present in Shiite political circles since the early 1990s, when a select few began toying with the idea of extending the idea of decentralization beyond the traditional concept of Kurdish autonomy in the north. But throughout that decade and into the period leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, these pro-federal attitudes were consistently focused on schemes for avoiding any sectarian definition of federal entities. Such sectarian units should be avoided at all cost, it was maintained, because they threatened to derail the entire federal project, fulfilling scaremonger prophecies about “federalism” being the equivalent of “partition”.3

     Such attitudes continued to prevail also after 2003. When the debate about federalism in Iraq heated up in early 2004 prior to the adoption of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), even Shiites who were sympathetic in principle to federalism maintained that sectarian entities should be avoided. For example, Qasim al-Sahlani of the Tanzim al-Iraq faction of the Daawa party maintained that, whereas the principle of federalism might well be extended beyond the Kurdish areas, it should not be applied on “an ethnic or communal basis”.4 Similarly, Ahmad al-Barrak, a Shiite member of the governing council, was positive to a federation built on administrative and geographical criteria but rejected one where sectarian or ethnic identities would be involved.5 In fact, the first specific model of Iraqi federalism outlined in the 15 November 2003 deal between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi governing council stipulated a form of federalism that would “comprise the governorates” (wa-tashmalu al-muhafazat) – a considerable step towards a non-sectarian, 18-governorate federal model of Iraq, but one that was subsequently torpedoed by Kurdish nationalist demands.6

     Even if a few Shiites were now beginning to look with greater interest at possible “Shiite” parallels to the Kurdish situation – members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) were particularly prominent in this regard – an overwhelmingly negative attitude to sectarian expressions of federalism persisted in Shiite circles. This was reflected in institutional developments in 2004 and 2005. Although the pro-sectarian SCIRI dominated the Shiite delegations both in the February 2004 TAL negotiations as well as during the work with the Iraqi constitution in the summer of 2005, even they did not venture to try to impose sectarian federalism from above. The TAL had a ceiling of three existing governorates as the maximum size of future federal entities, thereby preventing any purely Shiite region from being formed. The 2005 constitution did not impose any such specific limits, but neither did it give political elites the opportunity to dictate the demarcation of new federal regions. Instead, Iraq’s new federalization framework emerged as a remarkable syncretism, combining ideals dating from Spanish nineteenth-century anarchism (and brought to the table by the UN and international experts involved) with the demands of the more sectarian Shiite political leaders for some kind of parity with the Kurds.7

     In an interesting testimony to the strength of non-sectarian attitudes among Shiite Iraqi federalists, resistance to sectarian variants of federalism has persisted beyond the adoption of the Iraqi constitution in October 2005. In the first place, it seems very likely that federalism was involved in some of the unspecified “weaknesses” of the constitution that Sistani mentioned when grudgingly according his “approval” to it a few days before the October 2005 referendum.8 Moreover, in October 2006 some political parties, like the Fadila, explicitly rejected the procedures for implementing federalism on the grounds that the absence of size limitations would alienate the opponents of federalism (who were particularly worried about the emergence of sectarian federal entities).9 Problematic as they may be in terms of methodology, public opinion polls have quite consistently reported a strong Shiite desire to restrict federalism and even to move back to a unitary state formula – an interesting indication of the general level of ignorance about federalism that must have prevailed during the October 2005 referendum.10 In fact, even SCIRI has been at pains to present its scheme for a nine-governorate Shiite federal entity south of Baghdad as a “non-sectarian” one (based on the amalgamation of governorates “which just happen to be Shiite in demographic composition”), although this would seem rather disingenuous. In his propaganda talks in favor of the projected region, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim has spoken about  the “holy goal” (hadaf muqaddas) of implementing this project. Also emphatically sectarian are the signals sent by joint conferences of governors from all eleven Shiite governorates where Shiites have a substantial presence (including Baghdad, which is constitutionally barred from becoming part of a larger entity, and Diyala, where Shiites are in a minority but in control of the provincial government).11 This leaves SCIRI as the most important promoter of sectarian federalism for the Shiites, but at the same time it underlines the relatively vulnerable position of this project among the Shiite community as a whole.


Non-sectarian federalism in the far south

The chronology of the emergence of specific non-sectarian variants of federalism in the far south of Iraq is a straightforward one. Pro-federal ideas were current by late 2003, when the then Basra governor, Wail Abd al-Latif – a Shiite secularist – promoted the vision of Basra as a wealthy, mercantile single-governorate federal unit. Later, shortly after the TAL had been adopted, governors in neighboring Amara and Nasiriyya were the moving forces behind a slightly larger project that would combine Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar into a three-governorate federal entity to be known as the Region of the South (iqlim al-janub). This idea was supported by the next governor of Basra, SCIRI’s Hasan al-Rashid, when he assumed office in August 2004, and it soon achieved a remarkable degree of cross-party support in Basra. It was adopted by Fadila and their coalition partners (who sidelined SCIRI in local government after the January 2005 elections), and was enthusiastically supported in conferences arranged by secular and religious leaders during the spring of 2005.12

     The “pro-federal” spring of 2005 culminated in southern demands that the central government should act on the provisions in the TAL for creating a federal region of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar. This was, however, aborted in what appears to have been an act of internal Shiite sabotage against the non-sectarian federal aspirations of the far south. In the first place, it was the (Shiite-dominated) Jaafari government that failed to act on the southern demands for a mechanism for forming a federal region. Secondly, by removing the maximum limit on the size of federal entities in the constitutional drafts, Shiite legislators – themselves overwhelmingly from the central parts of Iraq – effectively deprived the southerners of an obvious legal rationale for their project. And finally, SCIRI launched its competing project of a single sectarian federal region south of Baghdad in August 2005. None of this served to obliterate the plans for a small-scale federal entity in the far south, however. The Fadila party, in particular, has continued to promote a small-scale southern region (although the idea of Basra as a federal region of its own has apparently replaced the three-governorate scheme), but also tribal forces in Maysan and Dhi Qar have expressed similar variants of opposition to sectarian federalism in the shape of non-sectarian federal plans for the far south. Even some SCIRI leaders in Basra remained more focused on Basra than on the Shiite super-region as late as the summer of 2005, when the more sectarian plans of the party’s politburo were well underway.13 And despite the combined efforts of SCIRI and the Maliki government to remove the regionalist Fadila from power in Basra, the non-sectarian federalist theme has persisted: even at the height of his confrontation with Maliki in the summer of 2007, Basra governor Muhammad al-Waili emphasized the idea of a Basra federal entity during a meeting with tribal sheikhs,14 whereas members of other parties within the Fadila coalition that apparently had defected during the vote of no confidence against the governor earlier in the year also resumed propaganda with a clear Basra regionalist dimension – for example, in the form of complaints that the central government had not given Basra a sufficient quota during the annual distribution of pilgrimage permits.15


“Southern suffering”

With regard to the contents of the non-sectarian federalism of the south, one of its main characteristics has been a sense of a common destiny defined by historical experience. And in this historical experience, the theme of suffering takes center stage. Rather than being defined by any shared ethnic or sectarian heritage, Iraqi southerners claim uniqueness on the basis of a common myth of deprivation. They hold that their fate has been different from that of all other Iraqis, including the Shiites of central Iraq. And while this is often portrayed as a general historical trend, most southerners point specifically to the recent experience of living in the battleground of two bloody wars – the Iran–Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and the Gulf War in 1991 – as the formative experience that entitles them to special political demands.

     Examples of this sense of suffering are widespread in southern political rhetoric. Typical are the words of Baqir Yasin al-Tamimi, a secular proponent of the Region of the South. In spring 2005, he wrote in a letter to the president of the Iraqi national assembly, “the governorates of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar have experienced worse neglect, injustice, marginalization and suppression… from the days of the monarchy and until this day.”16 He then went on to exemplify by referring to how the south had been transformed into “the stage for the destructive, bloody wars of the Baath regime”, claiming more than 300,000 victims. Some months earlier, the tone taken by Khalaf al-Manshidi, the editor of Manara – Basra’s largest newspaper – had been quite similar: “those who do not believe us should visit Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar, and should make a car trip along the Shatt al-Arab river from Basra to Abu al-Khasib, or travel down to Fao, to see for themselves what disaster the former regime brought to this lush area … during the war with Iran”.17 And in a newspaper letter in March 2006, Abd al-Karim al-Amiri echoed many of the same grievances, lamenting how southerners have had to live through years of “deprivation, oppression, violence, killing and marginalization”.18

      One important aspect of this sense of injustice is the widespread feeling that discrimination persisted also after 2003 when, supposedly, more democratic regimes were installed in Baghdad. These increasingly acidic comments by southerners on the Shiite-led governments that emerged from 2004 and onwards highlight the non-sectarian nature of the regionalist movement in the far south. In July 2005, southerners spoke of “marginalization” (tahmish) inside the constitutional committee (which in purely sectarian terms was Shiite-dominated).19 “What has [SCIRI leader] Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim done for Maysan?” demanded an angry Fadila leader in Amara in May 2006, after more than one year with a Shiite Islamist coalition in power in Baghdad.20 And when steps were taken by the Nuri al-Maliki government to try to unseat Basra’s governor from the Fadila party in the summer of 2007, talk of “neo-Baathism” as well as accusations of a cave-in to “Iranian” interests by the Shiite-led central government and their SCIRI allies surfaced in an angry Shiite on Shiite altercation.21

     The southern idea of suffering also has a concrete physical focus that is unique to the region. The scars of the wars of the 1980s and 1990s are still evident in the area, above all in the vicinity of Basra which saw some particularly ferocious military action during the war with Iran. Historically, Basra was the pre-eminent date-growing region of Iraq, with a thick belt of date palms extending along the Shatt al-Arab from Fao all the way to Qurna – today, it is only a pale shadow of its former glory. But perhaps the most important symbol of southern suffering is the marsh areas, shared by the three governorates in the south, and largely destroyed by the former regime during operations targeting opposition groups in the 1990s. Regionalist southerners often refer to the marshes as an example of the tragedies unique to the southern parts of Shiite Iraq, complaining that “the southern marshlands were dried out on the pretext of security operations… killing millions of birds, fish and domesticated animals”.22 This is another area where criticism has persisted beyond 2003, even though there is growing awareness that the local authorities themselves have not fully exploited the opportunity to improve conditions in the marshes. For instance, whereas Basra politicians were busy highlighting the plight of the marsh inhabitants during an international conference in Amman in Jordan in the summer of 2006, Basra newspapers back home had already sounded a critical note about the lack of local initiatives for doing something about the problem.23

Example of “southern” regionalism propaganda dating from the summer of 2007. The accompanying map is slightly atypical in that it also incorporates one locality north of the old Basra vilayet – Diwaniyya



Ownership of local energy resources

A watershed in Iraqi political discourse after 2003 has been the burgeoning idea of local ownership of energy resources. According to the standard Iraqi nationalist canon no such thing has ever existed: Iraqi oil belongs to the entire Iraqi people, full stop. As late as in January 2004, even a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party would maintain that he saw the central government as the natural administrator of all Iraqi oil, regardless of whether it was located in Basra or in Kirkuk.24

     Accounting for perhaps 70% of Iraq’s oil wealth and more than 97% of the energy resources located in the Shiite areas, Basra with its two neighboring governorates spearheaded the changing attitudes on this issue. Soon after having assumed power as Basra governor in August 2004, SCIRI’s Hasan al-Rashid revealed ideas that broke dramatically with the orthodox approach to resource management and ownership:

Taxation is among the prerogatives of the local government, and as a local government we have the right to put tax on exports, whether on oil or on other goods. Basra should not be the milk cow. All the oil fields of Iraq are in Basra. The United Arab Emirates is a country whose oil resources has made it into the most important state in the region.Abu Dhabi takes 50% of its oil income and hands over the other half to the central government.We also have the right to take a share from the oil.25

Subsequently, different approaches to the oil question emerged among southern regionalists. Some were content to juxtapose the legacy of neglect with the presence of oil resources and present this as a big paradox – as seen for instance in a statement by a Basra delegate to the big national convention in Baghdad in August 2003 who had left the proceedings in protest: “Basra is the city of the deprived and the oppressed [but also] the city of the oil wells”.26 Similarly, the Sadrist politician Abd al-Jabbar Wahid in April 2005 made the following complaint: “The Maysan governorate is rich in natural resources, but it has suffered neglect and marginalization. The sum set aside for it of 110 million dinars is not appropriate for this governorate which suffered so much under the former regime.”27 Others went further, echoing Hasan al-Rashid’s demand for a disproportionate share of the oil revenue. This was evident in March 2006, when Fadila supporters in Nasiriyya called for a general strike to “to guard our rights to administer our natural wealth as southern governorates that were hurt by the former regime”,28 and again in May 2006 when Muhammad Sa‘dun al-‘Abbadi of the Harakat al-Daawa vented his anger: “Basra single-handedly finances all of Iraq and had it not been for this city, Iraq would have come to a standstill… And yet, in terms of finances, Basra is treated as if it were another ordinary governorate.”29 And in some cases, the idea of local ownership was explicit. In May 2006, a Fadila member in Maysan openly accused the central government of “theft of the region’s oil resources for the benefit of the central government and the Kurdistan government”,30 whereas in July 2007 advocates of setting up a southern regional government in the three southernmost governorates referred to “our rich south” (janubna al-ghaniyy) to back up their political demands.31

     These ideological developments have been accompanied by cruder actions on the ground. Since its emergence in early 2003, the Fadila party has worked systematically to assert its influence within the local oil industry in Basra. More than any other party, it has succeeded in exercising some kind of control through personal links with leaders in the Southern Oil Company and through its dominance in the special security forces charged with guarding the oil installations. On more than one occasion, political strikes in the oil industry have been construed as acts of regional protest by Fadila leaders, as for instance in March 2005 when Basra’s governor  Muhammad al-Waili met with oil workers on strike who were demanding that “sons of the south” be recruited to the ministries of oil and transport,32 and again in July that year when he claimed that “the strike among the oil workers has political aims, notably to reduce the power of the central government and to achieve far-reaching prerogatives for the local administration as well as a fair share of the oil revenue.”33 The same theme was invoked in December 2005 when the three southern governorates refused to implement a hike in oil prices – a measure which had been decided centrally, and was immediately heeded in other parts of Iraq.34

     The novelty of this new southern approach to energy ownership is perhaps best appreciated when contrasted with attitudes in areas further north. After the three petro-governorates of the far south, Wasit is the Shiite area with the greatest concentration of energy resources. But here, local politicians were much less assertive than their southern counterparts during an interview in July 2006: “A delegation from the governorate was received by the prime minister in the presence of the oil minister concerning the possibilities to exploit the al-Ahdab oil field and the prime minister signaled his good intentions in this matter and the oil minister assured us that he had been in contact with the Chinese concerning contracts they had signed with the old regime.”35 Similarly, in Karbala (which has no oil of its own) in December 2005, the local governor patiently explained the central government’s change of the price of petrol by asserting that “the central government is the custodian and the manager (al-ra‘iy wa-al-mudabbir) which is not susceptible to the short-sighted whims of popular opinion”, adding that the step was part of a larger package to reduce Iraq’s external debt.36 This pliant attitude is what has now changed in the far south. Whereas Iraqis throughout the ages have demanded their “rights” (huquqna) – often a somewhat intangible and elusive concept – southern Iraqis are now asking to be taken seriously in claiming specific rights relating to their energy wealth. Importantly, from this perspective, what was celebrated by the Bush administration in September 2007 as “Iraqi sharing of oil revenue in the absence of oil legislation”, simply represented the cordial apportioning by Shiites from central Iraq and by the Kurds of booty taken from the oil wells of the far south.

     However, by no means is this conversion to new attitudes towards energy resources universal in the far south. For one thing, there are politicians who advocate a federal status for Basra but nevertheless maintain that the central government should have a leading role in managing oil resources – that is, a more leading role than that foreshadowed in the 2005 constitution (where Baghdad’s role in many aspects is circumscribed to the management of “existing” – i.e. already developed or explored – oil fields). One proponent of this kind of approach is Wail Abd al-Latif, the federalist pioneer, who in a constitutional amendment proposal suggested the following arrangement:

Oil, gas and all minerals and metals are the property of the Iraqi people in all the regions and governorates. The federal government will administer this property, existing and unexploited and undiscovered fields alike, and is responsible for its distribution to the Iraqi people in the regions and the governorates in accordance with population figures, with particular attention to those governorates that were hurt by the policies of the former regime and need special development aid to reach the level of the rest of the country.37

Yet other Basrawis concerned about oil do not even foresee any federal status for their area at all, preferring instead to work to improve the status of the "producing governorates" in the proposed oil legislation for Iraq.38


Southern regionalism and the ideal of coexistence

Perhaps the most complicated aspect of southern regionalism concerns identity issues. Clearly, the Region of the South is an attempt to define a kind of identity that is non-sectarian and instead rooted in shared historical experience. But the relationship to existing ideologies like Iraqi and Arab nationalism still remains somewhat ambiguous.

     Anti-sectarianism does play a certain role. Southerners deplore the system under which they are supposed to obtain their share of government spoils through Shiite quotas, which they see as continued dominance by Shiites from Baghdad and from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.39 They demand to be taken seriously when they argue against sectarian formulas for distributing government positions, and the elaborate ideological justification offered to back up this position suggests that the standard allegation of ulterior motives (“the Fadila party is merely protesting because they were not accorded a ministry”) is inadequate.40 And to a certain extent these lofty declarations have been followed up on the ground in Basra: for instance, Fadila has taken the lead in attempts to improve relations between the local government and the Sunni minority territorially concentrated in Zubayr and Abu al-Khasib.41

     There are, however, clear limits to this inter-sectarian, generally inclusive, aspect of the regionalist enterprise in the south. Instead of becoming the coalition partners of the Fadila, Sunni parties, Christian minorities as well as secularists of all confessional backgrounds have increasingly distanced themselves from the local federalists. The secular Manara newspaper, for example, now tends to feature articles critical to any kind of federalism, whereas the paper was pro-federal back in 2005.42 And in October 2007, it was left to the embattled Basra police chief – unpopular with many of the Shiite religious parties – to defend Basra’s cosmopolitan heritage. Deploring the deteriorating situation of the women of the Gulf city – they are increasingly being subjected to harassment and even murder in the name of religious piety – Abd al-Jalil Khalaf al-Shuwayli reminded journalists that Basra “is the home of numerous religious sects whose leaders do not impose any particular dress code or social practices.”43

      One factor that may have prevented the crystallization of a purely regional identity with a wide appeal is the survival of a considerable degree of Iraqi nationalism within regionalist circles. The Fadila party, for instance, clearly maintains substantial ambitions on the national Iraqi scene, and its religious leadership in Najaf frequently speaks the language of the unitary state.44 Several times, the Fadila governor has made a point of posing as an Iraqi nationalist (openly accusing SCIRI of being an Iranian stooge, and pointing to his own popularity among rulers in the Gulf as evidence of his Arab nationalist credentials)45 whereas another Basra regionalist, Muhammad Sa‘dun al-‘Abbadi, has reproached the Kurds for not flying the Iraqi flag in the Kurdish region. To some extent this attitude has also been reflected in the actions of the Basra governorate towards its Arab and Iranian neighbors, which must be described as more balanced than those seen in Shiite-majority governorates further north: whereas the Basra governorate has awarded contracts to Kuwaiti firms, Iran has played a far more fundamental role in the redevelopment of cities like Karbala and Najaf – the first major reconstruction meeting for Najaf took place in Tehran in May 2006,46 and a few months earlier the Karbala governor had even threatened to contact the Iranian consulate unless the agriculture department of the central government could offer immediate assistance with insecticides needed locally.47    

     This dualism of national and regional identities is clearly evident in the writings of some new southern authors who have emerged after 2003. Among them is Mahdi al-Hasnawi, who in 2004 published the book The Marshes: the Sumerian Civilization.48 In it, there is considerable evidence of a distinctive southern identity. Hasnawi’s definition of the south is “the three southern governorates [of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar]”, and the author uses the marshes as a symbolic focus to tell the story of personalities and tribes from all over this region. Multi-sectarian coexistence in the south is central: he devotes no less than six pages to the history of the non-Muslim communities of the marshland region, emphasizing how the Jews and the Mandaeans “exercised their religion in complete freedom in southern Iraq and in the environment of the marshes in particular”. He even traces the history of the Jews into exile in Israel, detailing their settlement in Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv and their continued attachment to their former homeland. 49 Similarly, Hasnawi portrays Shiite–Sunni relations as particularly amicable in the marsh region, with mixed marriages, frequent inter-sectarian festivities during Ramadan, and Sunni participation on Shiite holidays and vice-versa. But none of this localism serves to eradicate or threaten the themes of Iraqi and Arab nationalism. True, the author pays some attention to the (non-Semitic) Sumerian forefathers of today’s southerners, but he nevertheless maintains that “the majority of the population in the south hails from tribes which had emigrated from the Arabian  peninsula”.50 Again, there is often the notion of the marshes as an environment particularly supportive of a multi-religious society, but equally there are references to “the valleys of Mesopotamia” (bilad wadi al-rafidayn) and indeed all of Iraq as areas of coexistence that form a contrast to places like Pakistan and Kashmir.51 Despite the book’s title, there is no attempt to construct any exclusive non-Iraqi or non-Arab prehistory for the southern marshlands.

     Clearly these kinds of Iraqi and Arab loyalties have remained important to proponents of federalism in the far south, and may serve as distractions that prevent southerners from producing a more fully-fledged regionalist identity project. Forming cross-cutting cleavages that work against any form of one-dimensional separatism (whether “Shiite” or “Basra”) they serve as glue for those who subscribe to the wider Iraqi nationalist project.  If anything, in the south today it is anti-federal Iraqi nationalism that still has the upper hand with regard to mastery of the anti-sectarian theme. According to one Basrawi, “Federalism was a problem since the writing of the constitution began, and it remains a problem today… We should unify from south to north… united in love and support for Iraq, that is what we need today, to build a foundation for the future of our dear fatherland and create something unshakeable that will withstand the hurricanes and tornadoes.”52 And in the words of another, “The Iraqi people is not something that the British created in 1920 or 1930. It has existed for six thousand years and has taught humanity civilization, agriculture, irrigation and husbandry. Today, there are forces that wish to divide Iraq into regions, such as the Region of the North and the Region of the South. The Iraqi flag is not flown in the north. This is an American–Zionist plot which will fail, God willing.”53


Conclusion: non-sectarian federalism under pressure

Non-sectarian federalism in southern Iraq persists, but it is no longer as vibrant as it was during the first half of 2005.

     To some extent, the southern federalists have themselves to blame for this. On top of the problem of reconciling their regionalism with their Iraqi nationalism, they have also had major difficulties in organizing their political movement. They have been unable to transform a widely felt perception of southern marginalization into an integrated political movement – as painfully evident during the parliamentary elections in 2005, where pro-federal Baqir Yasin’s list (331) performed dismally in the January 2005 poll, and where Yasin as well as Khayrallah al-Basri both registered parties with an openly regionalist profile for the December elections, only to later become subsumed in greater coalitions with more nationalist agendas. Also, southern grievances are often framed in a way that fails to communicate with the established legal framework of the “new Iraq”: Basrawis have demanded a straightforward share of the oil they produce instead of entering the detailed discussion on oil legislation (where they could have pressed their case as a “producing governorate); and one of the 2007 incarnations of the “Region of the South” project simply declared that it had established a provisional government in the south, instead of crafting a strategy that would be compatible with the law for implementing federalism adopted in October 2006.54

     But it is also clear that the non-sectarian federal vision of Iraq’s southerners is under immense pressure from the outside, and that it is this factor, more than anything else, that threatens to extinguish it. First and foremost, the southerners represent a severe problem for the Shiite establishment of Iraq. Basra’s demand for a share of the oil revenue is not a demand for a “Shiite share”, and Basra’s vision of a small-scale, non-sectarian south is antithetical to SCIRI’s vision of a Shiite super-region from Baghdad to Basra. Shiites from central Iraq respond by treating the southerners with extreme condescension, using terms such as the “wild south” and accusing them of being “uneducated Marsh Arabs”.55 But they also take concrete action on the ground in the south. SCIRI in particular, but also to some extent the Maliki government, have worked systematically to remove Fadila and their noisy regionalism from the local scene in Basra. After a long period of challenges to Fadila in the provincial council in Basra, Nuri al-Maliki imposed a state of emergency in Basra in May 2006, and in the summer of 2007 came out in support of SCIRI’s attempt to remove the Fadila governor – as yet unsuccessfully. 

     Lastly, the international community, and the United Kingdom, the United States and Iran in particular, have become parties to the suppression of non-sectarian southern federalism in Iraq. For a long time, Britain acted quite neutrally in the south, standing back from local struggles and thereby allowing some kind of balance of power to emerge – with Fadila in power in Basra, Sadrists in control in Amara and SCIRI’s grip on power limited to Nasiriyya and Samawa. However, London now apparently wants to leave quickly, and it seems clear that the British government is going to turn a blind eye to Fadila’s misgivings about the true political loyalties of the “national” Iraqi security apparatus to which power will be handed over. The United States, for its part, has pursued an even simpler Shiite strategy in Iraq, consistently choosing to do business with a few selected personalities of SCIRI only, probably in the hope that they may be able to maintain some kind of superficial calm in what is uncritically lumped together as “the Shiite south” of Iraq. It seems likely that US involvement in what was formerly British-held territories in the far south will only strengthen the tendency towards SCIRI domination. And finally, from the point of view of Iran, the Fadila party remains an obvious enemy. Even if the Sadrists as a whole share an often-overlooked historical legacy of intense enmity against Iran, it is above all the Fadila party that has dared to persist loudly with this up until today. Their removal from the Basra governorate and the Southern Oil Company clearly seems to be in Tehran’s best interest – although with the absence of support to Fadila from other major players, some kind of forced cooptation should not be ruled out either. Ironically, then, Washington, London and Tehran all seem to share the view that non-sectarian variants of federalism in Iraq’s south are more of a problem then an asset, and that SCIRI dominance in a sectarian framework is preferable. Sheer logic would indicate that at least one of them is miscalculating.


1 More recently, this project has apparently been renamed iqlim janub baghdad or the Region of South of Baghdad.

2 For similar tendencies in the Middle Euphrates area, see Reidar Visser, “The Two Regions of Southern Iraq”, in Reidar Visser & Gareth Stansfield (eds.), An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? London: Hurst, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007

3 Reidar Visser, “Shiite Perspectives on a Federal Iraq: Territory, Community and Ideology in Conceptions of a New Polity”, in Daniel Heradstveit & Helge Hveem (eds.), Oil in the Gulf: Obstacles to Democracy and Development, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 140–44.

4 Al-Da‘wa, February 10, 2004.

5 Al-Mashriq, February 24, 2004.

6 For Shiite support for this idea, see article by Amir Naji Hasan in al-Da‘wa, January 7, 2004.

7 Reidar Visser, “Federalism From Below in Iraq: Some Historical Reflections”, paper presented to an international workshop on “Iraq after the New Government”, Como, Italy, November 2006, www.historiae.org/federalism-from-below.asp

8 Often overlooked is the fact that it was only the constitutional revision clause inserted at the twelfth hour, ostensibly to placate Sunnis, that persuaded Sistani to give the green light to a “Yes” vote. The divergence between Sistani’s rhetoric and that of the pro-sectarian SCIRI is particularly pronounced on the federalism issue, see Reidar Visser, “Sistani, The United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism?” NUPI Paper no. 700, March 2006, www.historiae.org/sistani.asp

9 Aswat al-Iraq, October 5, 2006.

10 In BBC/ABC polls conducted in spring and autumn of 2007, the percentages of Shiites who favored a unitary state model with no federalism of any description, whether sectarian or non-sectarian (effectively this would mean a dramatic revision of the 2005 constitution) were 41 and 56 respectively.

11 Al-Adala, September 28, 2006.

12 Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2005, pp. 171–72.

13 “In the South, a Bid to Loosen Baghdad’s Grip”, Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2005.

14 Press release from the governor’s office, Basra, August 1, 2007.

15 Aswat al-Iraq, September 10, 2007.

16 Undated letter from Baqir Yasin al-Tamimi to Hajim al-Hasani, circa spring 2005.

17 Al-Manara, October 3, 2004.

18 Al-Manara, March 28, 2006.

19 Posting on www.southiraq.org, July 1, 2005.

20 Letter from Ali Husayn Faraj to the leadership of the United Iraqi Alliance, May 15, 2006.

21 Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 29, 2007, press release of the Fadila party in Basra dated July 28, 2007.

22 Undated letter from Baqir Yasin al-Tamimi to Hajim al-Hasani, circa spring 2005.

23 Al-Manara, March 11, 2006.

24 Interview with Falak al-Din Kaka’i, Al-Jazeera Television, January 23, 2004.

25 Interview in al-Manara, September 1, 2004.

26 Al-Manara, August 22, 2004.

27 Al-Manara, April 13, 2005.

28 Fadila press release, March 1, 2006.

29 Fadila press release, May 31, 2006. Also, “Basra Seeks More Autonomy, Oil Revenue”, NPR, August 5, 2005.

30 Letter from Ali Husayn Faraj to the leadership of the United Iraqi Alliance, May 15, 2006.

31 Press release of an entity calling itself the “Autonomous government of southern Iraq”, July 24, 2007.

32 Al-Manara, March 27, 2005.

33 Al-Mu’tamar, July 19, 2005.

34 Reidar Visser, “Basra Crude: The Great Game of Iraq’s ‘Southern’ Oil”, NUPI Paper no. 723, 2007, www.historiae.org/oil.asp

35 Al-Manara, July 11, 2006.

36 Government of Iraq, Office of the Prime Minister, Reports on the Activities of the Governors, Karbala Report dated December 27, 2005.

37 From a document on constitutional reform by Abd al-Latif probably dating from early 2006.

38 Article by Abd al-Jabbar al-Hilfi in al-Manara, March 2007. It should be pointed out that the latest draft of the Iraqi oil law in some contexts introduced discriminatory measures against oil-producing governorates (as opposed to those with a federal status), whereas in previous drafts all oil-producing entities had been on an equal footing.

39 Posting dated December 24, 2005 at www.southiraq.org, accessed on February 18, 2006. The link is now defunct.

40 Fadila press release, September 11, 2006.

41 Fadila press release, October 21, 2006.

42 Al-Manara, October 21 and October 28, 2006 and July 26, 2007.

43 Aswat al-Iraq, October 3, 2007.

44 Report from Fadila party meeting in Basra, December 20, 2006.

45 Washington Post, August 19, 2006; “Parties Battle in Basra”, Washington Times, August 16, 2007.

46 Al-Manara, May 9, 2006.

47 Al-Manara, February 23, 2006.

48 Mahdi al-Hasnawi, Al-ahwar: hadarat sumir, Baghdad: Dar al-Shu’un al-Thaqafiyya al-‘Amma, 2004.

49 Al-Hasnawi, al-Ahwar, p. 93.

50 Ibid., p. 18.

51 Ibid., p. 100.

52 Al-Manara, October 21, 2006.

53 Riyad al-Asadi, remarks at a federalism conference in Basra, April 2005.

54 Press release by the “Autonomous government of southern Iraq”, July 24, 2007.

55 Conversations with Shiite politicians from Baghdad, June 2007.

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