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Ottoman Provincial Boundaries, Shiite Federalism, and Energy Conflict in Iraq

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

[This is the English version of an article which appeared in Turkish in Stratejik Analiz (Ankara), November 2006, originally titled "Osmanli eyalet sinirlari, Sii federalizmi ve Irak’taki enerji anlasmazligi" and available as PDF file.]

Among the internal provincial borders of the eastern Ottoman lands, the old boundary between the vilayets of Mosul and Baghdad has historically been the most momentous one in international affairs. But the line that divided Baghdad from Basra could in the future become equally important – as a factor in Iraqi politics, in wider regional power struggles, and not least in geopolitical conflicts over energy resources. Already today, the heated debate about new federalism legislation in the Iraqi parliament has shown that this ancient border relates to regional sentiments that on certain issues pit Shiites against Shiites.

The unknown boundary
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect about the old Ottoman Basra–Baghdad frontier is that surprisingly few contemporary Iraq analysts are aware of exactly where it was. That certainly is the case in Europe and the United States, where even experts seem locked in a belief that the Basra vilayet covered approximately the area of Iraq where today there is a Shiite majority. Western maps purporting to show the administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire often use a rough line drawn just to the south of Baghdad to mark the border; even prestigious academic publishers and news media tend to reiterate this fallacious image.

The old vilayet of Basra bordering on Arabia (west), Baghdad (north) and Persia (east). The border with Baghdad sliced the Shiite areas in the region in two; note the location of Karbala in the upper left corner, in the centre of the Baghdad vilayet. Taken from an Ottoman atlas dating from the early twentieth century

In reality, most Shiites in the Ottoman Empire lived in the vilayet of Baghdad. The boundary between Basra and Baghdad ran much further to the south than is commonly thought: for long periods it extended roughly from north of Nasiriyya to north of Amara. As a result of this, the majority of Shiite regions in today’s Iraq – including such key Shiite shrine cities as Najaf and Karbala – have historically had their fortunes intimately connected with Baghdad rather than with Basra as “their” centre.

Since the early days of Islam, “the province of Basra” – when it existed – had tended to denote the Gulf city plus its immediate tribal hinterland, rather than any larger unit extending northwards in the direction of Baghdad. In classical times Basra formed an opposite pole to the province of Kufa (where the holy cities of the Shiites would later emerge). When on a few occasions Basra was enlarged to a greater area, this tended to be in the southerly direction along the Arabian shores of the Gulf, or, alternatively, to the northeast along the Tigris. The often inaccessible Euphrates districts, on the other hand, tended to remain within Baghdad’s sphere of influence, if not actual control. There was really only one substantial historical attempt at combining the central areas of Iraq and Basra in the south in a single polity; this project, led by the semi-autonomous Hilla-based Mazyadid Bedouin emirate in the early twelfth century, met with considerable opposition in urban Basra and collapsed shortly after its inception.(1)

These geographical–political patterns were perpetuated during the first centuries of Ottoman rule after their conquest of the region in 1534, when the principal dynamic in the affairs of the Basra vilayet was the struggle between the established urban centre of Basra and tribal forces in the Jaza’ir and Muntafiq tribal regions to the immediate north. Rarely was any internal regional harmony achieved, but there were short periods in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when semi-independent principalities based on this delta region emerged, under such local rulers as the urban Afrasiyab dynasty (who contemplated severing all links with the Ottomans in favour of ties with European powers) and tribal rulers of the Muntafiq Sa‘dun clan (who repeatedly sought to impress on the urban population of Basra that they alone could guarantee tranquillity and a safe trading environment).(2) However, none of these entities extended much further northwards than the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates at Qurna, and this tradition of a small-scale Basra province was reproduced by Ottoman administrators in the 1880s when they gave the Basra vilayet its final shape by formally designating it as a triangle from Nasiriyya on the Euphrates via Amara on the Tigris and down to Basra at the head of the Gulf (and with an extension, of a decidedly more theoretical nature, southwards to Hufuf in present-day Saudi Arabia).

The oil boundary
The Ottoman boundary line between Basra and Baghdad did more than creating internal splits between the Shiites in the region. It was not known at the time, but the line that separated the two vilayets also correlated closely to geological patterns, which meant that almost all the hydrocarbon reserves in this region fell to Basra. However, in twentieth-century history this remained largely irrelevant. After Basra, Baghdad and Mosul became administratively amalgamated under a British mandate in 1920, the population of the oil-bearing regions of this country – the Shiites of Basra included – embraced the new Iraqi nationalist ethos and its unitary state paradigm with remarkable ease. By the time oil exploration started in Basra in the 1930s (and certainly before actual drilling commenced in the 1950s) Iraq had a firmly unitary state tradition – and oil was widely considered a common national resource, especially in the Arab areas, whether Shiite or Sunni. Whereas Kirkuk oil would sometimes be claimed as “Kurdish”, there emerged no parallel particularistic demands on Basra oil, which was consistently referred to as a common national good, by regime and oppositionists alike.(3)

Since the Gulf War in 1991, there has been increased focus on the connections between Iraq’s oil resources and identity politics. But in this regard another unfortunate media simplification has emerged, quite similar to the one that habitually equates the “vilayet of Basra” with “the Shiites”. Thus, in much reporting from Iraq today, it is widely assumed that every square inch of territory downstream of Baghdad is overflowing with oil and gas. Journalists are often content to speak of the “the vast energy resources of Shiite Iraq” and tend to overlook how most of the oil is really in the “far south” – and not in any sense distributed evenly across the Shiite-dominated territories. All the key existing fields, as well as important future ones, can in fact be found within short distance of Basra, Amara and Nasiriyya.(4)

Shiite federalism and the boundary question
The reason why the Basra vilayet boundary is again becoming relevant is quite simple: despite the long-standing unitary state tradition in Iraq, after 2003 the people living in what was the old Ottoman vilayet of Basra have shown an increasing interest in the geology of their patria. Back in 2004 they were the first Shiites to launch a bid for a federal region, when the governorates of Basra, Dhi Qar and Maysan combined in a bid to unite as a single southern federal region. Named the Region of the South or iqlim al-janub, this project aimed at restoring a high standard of living to the long-neglected southern region, not least by securing a local share of the enormous proceeds of the oil industry. At first, the idea of a federal unit in these three governorates attracted interests from both secularists and Islamists, but since 2005 the chief protagonists for a small-scale “southern” region have been from the Fadila Party (who are particularly strong in Basra) and from tribal blocs in all three governorates.(5) (Additionally, independent-minded Sadrist factions, who control the Maysan governorate, have at least been flirting with regionalist schemes.)

It is important to distinguish between this regional variant of federalism, and a sectarian competitor which emerged in August 2005. At that point, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) launched the idea of creating a much bigger entity that would cover all the Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad – nine altogether – in a single unit. (This project has been named iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub, partly to distinguish the scheme from its “southern” competitor, but also a reflection of native Iraqi discourse where the Euphrates region around Najaf is usually referred to as the “centre” and not as the “south”.) The principal propaganda element in SCIRI’s vision of a Shiite federal state has been the idea that federalism could serve as a check on anti-Shiite terrorism by Sunni extremists.(6)

Left, the Region of the South (iqlim al-janub); centre, oil fields of Iraq (in black); right, the Region of the Centre and the south (iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub)

Because of the geopolitical dimension and the vast oil resources involved, it should come as no surprise that adherents of these two different Shiite visions of federalism are in competition with each other. If for instance a separate mini-region were established in the south, the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiites (who live north of this area) would find themselves left out of the chief oil-producing area. On the other hand, in case the larger vision of a Shiite super-unit should gain ground, there would be a more equitable distribution of oil per capita among the Shiites, and a party with traditionally strong ties to Iran, SCIRI, would be able to bolster its position at the expense of the smaller factions that are currently in control of provincial government in the south.

Although considerable efforts have been made to sweep these tensions under the carpet – they are particularly delicate because they relate to internal frictions within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) – there can be little doubt that they persist today. One telling indicator was Nuri al-Maliki’s dramatic visit to Basra in late May 2006. Ostensibly this action was taken to deal with “criminal gangs” and, secondarily, Shiite–Sunni tension. The key reason, however, may have related to the bitter struggle in Basra between the local branches of the Fadila Party (who favour the small-scale region of three governorates in the south) and SCIRI (who like their partisans in Baghdad and Najaf are more inclined towards the vision of a single Shiite mega-canton).(7)

The second Ottoman legacy in Iraq
But to focus exclusively on the old vilayet boundary between Basra and Baghdad and today’s struggle between two different variants of Shiite federalism would be to overlook other significant trends in Iraqi and indeed Shiite history. And again Ottoman as well as ancient Islamic administrative history offer good points of departure for catching a glimpse of currents and concepts that have proved truly enduring over time.

Perhaps the most formidable of these are the “Iraq” concept. There is another fallacy in much contemporary Iraq commentary that is almost as widespread as the misconceptions about the true geographical extent of the Basra vilayet: the outright dismissal of “Iraq” as a geographical and historical entity, as if it were a complete novelty forced on the inhabitants of the Mesopotamian riverbanks after the First World War. In fact, this concept is a much older one. In the early days of Islam, although there was a subdivision between Basra and Kufa, there was also a wider upper-level administrative unit that stretched far inland: Iraq. This entity ran at least as far north as Takrit, north of which was another province named Jazira. In Abbasid times, when the caliphate was moved to Baghdad, much of this entire area was in fact so close to the seat of power so as to be almost undistinguishable from it, as a sort of giant capital district. True, there would be revolts in the far south around Basra – mostly focused on various anti-caliphate religious movements, as during the revolt by African slaves in the ninth century, or subsequent Kharijite challengers (literally, “those who go out”, dissenters) of various calibres. But equally, there would be rescue expeditions from Baghdad, often after desperate requests by local inhabitants who pleaded with the caliph to send troops to terminate the excesses of unruly local strongmen.(8)

Iraq continuity persisted beyond the fall of the caliphate in 1258. In fact, for considerable periods during the age of Mongol rule in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, Iraq was technically ruled as a single charge. In Ottoman times, especially after Basra aspirations for autonomy had proved too dangerous under the adventurous Afrasiyab in the seventeenth century, Istanbul too sought to create a sense of unity between Baghdad and Basra in the early 1700s. This project was perpetuated and enjoyed something of a heyday during the reign of the semi-autonomous Georgian mamluks who ruled from Baghdad between 1747 to 1831 – especially during Sulayman the Great, whose “greatness” was indeed associated with the relative stability and prosperity he brought to this particular region. “Iraq” in this period corresponded quite closely to the modern state that was established in 1921: even though Mosul technically remained a separate administrative entity, Baghdad’s influence comprised most of the rural lands apart from the city of Mosul itself, and the “Iraqi” sphere of control continued northwards into Kurdish areas (actually all the way to Mardin).(9)

Detail from Ottoman report dating from 1889 on the spread of Shiism in the “Iraq region”

Conversely, the nineteenth century – the period of an Ottoman comeback in the region – rather belonged to the forces of administrative differentiation. In this era Mosul did acquire a degree of real administrative independence at junctures, as did Basra eventually. Nevertheless, as late as during the final decade of Ottoman rule, efforts were made to re-centralise and merge certain administrative and military functions for this vast region under a single office, as seen in the reform attempts under Nazim Pasha – who was charged with coordinating administrative functions for Basra Baghdad and Mosul, and by 1910 was referred to as “reformer of Iraq” by the local press. The fruits of Nazim Pasha’s particular efforts may have been limited, but that cannot detract from what on the whole stands out as the most enduring factor in the politics of the Mesopotamian plains from the early seventh century to 1914: some sort of subordination – if not always an idyllic one – of outlying peripheries to Baghdad as the paramount regional centre of power.

Given this long-lasting historical record it is unsurprising that the inhabitants of the region, be they Shiites or Sunnis, should respond to the idea of a unified Iraq in the twentieth century with some sense of recognition and familiarity. Even though they were in serious disagreements with the modern-time rulers of Baghdad about the overall direction of Iraqi politics, the Shiites in the twentieth century never ever presented any substantial separatist scheme that sought to sever ties with Iraq in favour of a sectarian Shiite breakaway state. (There was a separatist movement in Basra in the 1920s, but its protagonists were Sunni Arab, Christian and Jewish merchants.) The Iraq concept, often dismissed by contemporary commentators as mere “Iraqi nationalist propaganda”, is in fact one of the principal and most constant themes in the history of the lands along the Euphrates and the Tigris.(10)

Status of the federalism issue today
Today’s situation in Iraq reflects all these different trends. The vision of a oil-rich federal region in the far south remains alive, and whilst the Fadila Party is coming under pressure from others in the UIA who consider them a problem, they still seem capable of putting up resistance. Even after Maliki’s security clampdown in Basra in June 2006, Fadila continued to quarrel with Baghdad about who should be police chief in the area, forcing Maliki to adopt yet more extra-procedural methods in August when he abruptly created a “security committee” for the Gulf city, under the control of Baghdad appointees. Moreover, it is evident that the regionalist trend in the south enjoys a degree of wider support the factions that dominate local government in Basra. Still in early August 2006, there were tribal demonstrations in Dhi Qar in favour of the three-province federal scheme that more or less corresponds to the old Basra vilayet, and the same idea received backing among tribal notables in Maysan.(11) Supporters of this vision for the south enjoy the advantage of a long-standing historical legacy that corresponds to their modern-day political vision, and they may be more difficult to upstage than the mostly Baghdad-based Shiite returnees from exile have anticipated.

As for SCIRI’s plan for single sectarian canton, it is still barely one year old. The anti-terror argument in favour of a unified variant Shiite federalism has clearly grown in importance after the Samarra blast in February 2006. But even though there are interesting indications that for instance certain Daawa figures – traditionally staunch defenders of the unitary state framework – are beginning to warm up to the Shiite federation project, the absence of support from the higher ranks of the Shiite clergy remains a problem to the supporters of this variant of Shiite federalism. At least indirectly, the ulama acceded to federalism as a general principle through their embrace – albeit a reluctant one – of the new Iraqi constitution back in 2005, and recently at least one of the top clerics (Muhammad Said al-Hakim) has explicitly spoken of decentralisation as a positive concept.(12) But this is still a far cry from an endorsement of the specific project of creating a sectarian federal entity – an endorsement which it is painfully clear that the clergy has deliberately withheld despite frequent requests from pro-federal circles.

The Sadrists, on the other hand, still remain nominally Iraqi nationalist – despite some flirtation with small-scale regionalism on the part of their loosely affiliated “branches” in Maysan and Basra, as well as growing embroilment of Sadrist militia units in sectarian violence antithetical to the nationalist ethos of their leadership. Smaller Sadrist splinter groups – including supporters of Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, who has become prominent lately – profess similar ideals, and are now perhaps more virulently anti-federal than are the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. To the extent that the propaganda of these groups offers alternative symbolic foci other than Iraqi patriotism, what animates them seem to be Arab nationalism and Islamic universalism – Jerusalem, Palestine and Lebanon – rather than any idea of instantly transforming southern Iraq into an oil-producing Gulf state. Such attitudes have been echoed in the stance of the highest Shiite clergy of Iraq, among whom the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been a leading figure in stressing the indivisibility of Iraq. In July 2006 Sistani for the first time after 2003 issued a personally signed pronouncement on Iraqi politics, in which he delivered an emphatic plea for the preservation of the country’s national unity and for harmony among its various ethno-religious components.(13) This is a point of view that continues to have resonance among large masses of Iraqis. Even some months after the Samarra incident and the subsequent sectarian violence, considerable popular reservation against federalism was reported in such key Shiite cities as Karbala.(14)

The savage terror campaign against the Shiites can understandably breed insularism and thus strengthen the newfangled idea of a single Shiite federal canton. Recently there have been signs that the SCIRI politicians in favour of such an entity have finally been able to convince an increasing number of fellow Shiite elite politicians within the UIA to come over to their side. But historians will not be surprised if the two grander themes of Shiite Iraqi history – Basra regionalism, and Baghdad’s magnetism in some sort of greater Iraqi framework – will continue to assert themselves for decades and centuries to come, and will keep on creating distractions for those who prefer to see a new Iraq built on purely sectarian blocs of Shiites and Sunnis, based in separate territories.


1. See Abd al-Jabbar Naji, Al-imara al-mazyadiyya (Basra, 1970).
2. For the Afrasiyab emirate, see Muhammad al-Khal, Tarikh al-imara al-afrasiyabiyya (Baghdad, 1961); for the Sa‘duns, Ali al-Sharqi, Dhikra al-sa‘dun, aw, ta’rikh batal al-tadhiya wa-al-ikhlas (Baghdad, 1929), pp. 5–47.
3. “Centralism and Unitary State Logic in Iraq from Midhat Pasha to Jawad al-Maliki: A Continuous Trend?” 22 April 2006, http://historiae.org/maliki.asp
4. Kamil al-Mehaidi, “Geographical Distribution of Iraqi Oil Fields and Its Relation with the New Constitution”, Revenue Watch Institute, May 2006, available from

5. For an early expression of this tendency, see al-Mada, 16 October 2004.
6. For a typical version of the SCIRI argument for sectarian federalism, see Muhammad al-Wadi, “Al-fidiraliyya hall sha‘bi wa-qanuni najih”, al-Adala, 24 July 2006. It is significant that there is now rhetorical convergence between this tendency and a far more radical (and also more marginal) separatist trend that became manifest in 2004, see Reidar Visser, “Shiite Separatism in Iraq: Internet Reverie or Real Constitutional Challenge?” NUPI Paper 686 August 2005, available at http://historiae.org/shiseparatism.asp
7. On the military and security dimensions of this struggle, see “Al-milishiyat tuharribu al-naft min 8 mawani’ sirriya”, al-Zaman, 20 May 2006.
8. A nineteenth-century author who exemplifies this approach to Iraqi history is Ibn al-Ghamlas, Wulat al-basra wa-mutasallimuha (edited version by Ali al-Basri, Baghdad, 1962).
9. Stephen Longrigg, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq (Oxford, 1925), pp. 209–210.
10. On the earlier history of separatist attempts in southern Iraq, see Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin/New Brunswick, 2005).
11. “Tazahura fi dhi qar tutalibu bi iqamat iqlim al-janub”, al-Zaman, 5 August 2006.
12. Press release from the office of Muhammad Said al-Hakim dated 10 August 2006, published subsequent to a meeting with tribal shaykhs from the Najaf area.
13. Pronouncement released by Sistani’s office, dated 22 Jumada al-Thani 1427/18 July 2006.
14. “Al-aghlabiyya yarfiduna al-fidiraliyya fi karbala wa-al-raghibun yuridunaha bi-aliat jadida”, al-Sabah, 5 June 2006.


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