Friday, January 23, 2009

Basra Federal Region Plan Fails

On January 20 the Iraqi Election Commission announced that the supporters of a Basra federal region had failed to acquire the necessary signatures to hold a referendum on the issue. Independent member of parliament Wail Abd al-Latif and the Fadhila Party that currently rules Basra were behind the effort. In November 2008 they turned in a petition with 34,800 signatures, 2% of the province’s voting population, which was the first step necessary to hold a vote on making Basra an autonomous region. They then had one month to collect 135,707 signatures, 10% of Basra’s voting public to move forward with their plan. They came up with only 32,448, less than their original November amount. This was always a risky move as it came just before provincial elections at the end of January, and appears to be a major setback for the embattled Fadhila party.

The drive for a Basra federal region was an uphill battle from the beginning. A recent poll by the Iraqi government run National Media Center found that 94% of the residents of the province were opposed to the idea. Latif and Fadhila were never able to bring a large number of residents over to their side because their argument appeared to be contradictory, and had major opposition from many of Iraq’s ruling parties. Supporters said they were nationalists who wanted to stop the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) from forming a southern Shiite region and limit Iranian influence. Many believe that can best be done by strengthening the central government in Baghdad, rather than breaking Basra off. Federalists also criticized the Kurdistan Regional Government for signing their own oil deals, yet wanted some control of petroleum revenues themselves. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the SIIC, and the Iraqi Islamic Party were all against the plan as well. Ironically, the Kurdish Alliance was the only outside group to stand by the Basra plan. As a result, the supporters were always on the defensive. Wail Abd al-Latif and others often complained that the Election Commission was biased against their effort, and blamed the Prime Minister and the United Iraqi Alliance for working against them. All together this led for a disjointed campaign that failed to garner much public approval in the end.

That didn’t stop the Fadhila Party from pulling out the stops to gain signatures. According to The National, Fadhila members pressured government workers to go along with the plan. The paper interviewed several provincial employees who said they were intimidated into signing the petition. All said they did not make formal complaints about the moves because they were afraid the ruling Fadhila party would fire them, arrest them, or have militiamen go after them.

The Fadhila Party came out the biggest loser in this effort, but it has implications for the Supreme Council as well. Fadhila put their full weight behind the Basra plan, even trying to strong-arm government employees into supporting it. They are already under pressure for failing to provide services, jobs, and development in Basra, and this could be a further sign that they will lose seats, and probably control of the province in the upcoming elections. This was also the first real attempt to form an autonomous region outside of Kurdistan. The Supreme Council has aspired to create a nine province southern Shiite region. They haven’t talked about it for a while, but recently a member of the Hakim family said that the SIIC still wants a federal region, and will work towards that goal after the elections. The few signatures that Wail and the Fadhila were able to acquire, and the low approval rating for such a plan in opinion polls should be a warning to them that there is little support for their idea. In fact, Iraqi nationalism is re-emerging after the sectarian war, with Arab Iraqis at least supporting a stronger central government based in Baghdad. Both Fadhila and the SIIC could come out losers in the elections, which could mean the end of any ideas for an autonomous region in the south.


Agence France Presse, “Iraqi PM Calls for Strong Central Government,” 1/22/09

Alsumaria, “Lights shed on federalism in Iraq Basra,” 11/13/08

Aswat al-Iraq, “Establishing Basra region easing off political congestion – MP,” 11/14/08

CNN, “Basra’s bid for autonomy stalls,” 1/22/09

Hendawi, Hamza and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Momentum builds for a self-ruled southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 1/16/09

Kurdish Globe, “Basra Seeks a Region of Its Own Within Iraq,” 11/13/08

Mohammed, Aref, “Thousands demand separate region for Iraq’s Basra,” Reuters, 12/27/08

The National, “Ballot tests Iraq’s integrity at polls,” 1/22/09

Reuters, “Autonomy Referendum For Iraq’s South Struck Down,” 1/20/09

Visser, Reidar, “An Initiative to Create the Federal Region of Basra Is Launched,”, 11/13/08
- “Basra, the Failed Gulf State, Part II: Wail Abd al-Latif Concedes Defeat,”, 1/17/09

Al-Wazzan, Saleem, “basra’s dominant parties expect to maintain power,” Niqash, 12/15/08


Anonymous said...

From the sound of it, the citizens of Basra governorate were not necessarily expressing their displeasure with federalism, per se, but with the idea of an independent region with an ethnically-based power structure.

According to reports issued by the International Crisis Group, most Iraqis in Basra favor a kind of "administrative federalism" that would not necessarily be based on ethnicity but that would reflect their general desire for some local control over their lives.

To be sure, there are many definitions of federalism and I remain convinced that one type or another will eventually form the basis for national political reconciliation in Iraq...or we will witness an inexorable slide backward into widespread sectarian strife if not all out civil war.

Joel Wing said...

Miller said:

According to reports issued by the International Crisis Group, most Iraqis in Basra favor a kind of "administrative federalism" that would not necessarily be based on ethnicity but that would reflect their general desire for some local control over their lives.

What you just wrote is what the proponents of the Basra federal region were arguing for.

It wasn't a Supreme Council like Shiite autonomous region, but rather an argument for a Basra that could control some of its oil wealth to help develop the province.

The proponents claimed they were Iraqi nationalists that did not want autonomy from Baghdad, opposed the Supreme Council, the Kurds, and Iran, and supported the government's right to control natural resources. What they wanted was a cut of the oil and export of it, which mostly comes from and through Basra to help develop the province.

They got 2% of the voters the first time to sign a petition to move for a federal region, and then less than 2% for a petition to have a vote on it.

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