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Debating Devolution

Sunday 23 March 2008, by Reidar Visser

In early August 2007, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, made headlines with striking comments to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. The cleric revealed in an interview with Sam Dagher that “a massive operation” was underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be named the “South of Baghdad Region,” and projected to encompass all nine majority-Shi‘i governorates south of the Iraqi capital. Saghir claimed that his party had already drafted detailed plans for how such a super-province would be governed — plans of such importance to Iraq and the region that there was “no room for misadventures.”[1] While Saghir did not mention a timeline for this remarkable undertaking, other Supreme Council supporters of the idea were less reticent: “The Shiite federal region will be announced in April 2008,” wrote one enthusiastic proponent.[2]

The date was not chosen at random. April 2008 is the month when the law for implementing federalism — adopted by the Iraqi parliament in October 2006 — comes into effect. For the first time in Iraqi history, areas of the country that desire a special federal status similar to that already enjoyed by Kurdistan may initiate a procedure for transforming themselves from ordinary governorates into “federal regions,” potentially acquiring such privileges as the right to establish local paramilitary forces and the right to negotiate local deals with foreign oil companies. In order to obtain the rank of federal region, a governorate must hold a referendum in which no less than 50 percent of the electorate votes and a simple majority votes yes. If multiple governorates wish to band together in one federal region, the proposition must pass such a referendum in each province tagged for inclusion. (Only the Baghdad province is prohibited from forming part of a greater federal region.) If one targeted governorate says no, the federal project founders.


For a while, it seemed that Supreme Council leaders were on track to realize their grandiose federal ambitions south of Baghdad. The Supreme Council already held a very strong position inside the Iraqi government, thanks not least to its excellent relations with Washington and Tehran — both of which capitals, somewhat incongruously, consider the Shi‘i Islamist party their number one partner in the Green Zone. The Supreme Council’s project also dovetailed nicely with the aspirations of the twin Iraqi Kurdish parties, which have long sought allies willing to engage in quid pro quo bargaining over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they aim to embrace inside expanded boundaries of the present Kurdistan Regional Government. (The Supreme Council could find Kurdish backing helpful for its similar designs upon areas of the Sunni Arab-dominated Anbar governorate.) And in September 2007 another potential ally entered the limelight: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) sponsored a Senate resolution recommending that Iraqi elites answer the question of federalism through a nationwide “conference settlement.” Such a “conference” would be alien to the provisions for gradual “bottom-up” federalism in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, but would be precisely the sort of setting where the polished Supreme Council leaders would have the upper hand and where the cumbersome, but more democratic constitutional modalities could be dispensed with altogether.[3] (In December, Biden’s non-binding “sense of Congress” resolution passed.)

On January 13, 2008, however, other Shi‘i actors, including loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr, several branches of the Da‘wa party and many independents, joined Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, representatives of the Yazidi and Shabak minorities, and secularists of all communal backgrounds in signing a “Baghdad charter” that addressed the federalism question from a different perspective.[4] The document expressed deep concern about bids by regional entities to cut deals with foreign oil companies, adding that the status of Kirkuk (which the Kurds hope to absorb into their federal region through an early referendum) should be resolved only through negotiation and consensus, so that the city becomes a “model of national unity, coexistence and social integration of the people of a single united homeland.” The declaration also inveighed against the resort to ethno-sectarian principles in structuring Iraqi politics. Funds from the national budget, for example, should be distributed among provinces according to their relative demographic weight, not communal quotas.

Weeks later, this noteworthy cross-sectarian coalition asserted itself once more. On January 28, Baha’ al-Araji, a Sadrist, spoke before the Iraqi parliament on the issue of the draft law for the powers of governorates — those that already exist, not the envisioned federal regions. He emphasized, firstly, that the powers the draft law gave to provincial assemblies should come into force only after new local elections had been held and, secondly, that it was necessary to insert a timetable for those provincial elections in the law. Al-Araji was supported in this stance by the Fadhila party (a spinoff from the main Sadrist bloc) and other Shi‘i Islamists, as well as Sunni Islamists, secularists and minority representatives.[5] The opponents of a timetable for elections were the Kurdish parties and the Supreme Council, which also voiced concern about the relatively large role given to the central government in supervising the existing governorates.

With the eventual passage on February 13 of the non-federated governorates act, Iraqi Shi‘a, and indeed Iraq as a whole, had moved very far from the imaginative federal plans described by Saghir to Dagher less than six months before. Through their actions in the legislature, substantial segments of the “Shi‘i” contingent had demonstrated commitment to another, less sectarian vision: consolidation of the existing system of government in Iraq south of Kurdistan, with a meaningful role for the central government, and with no administrative lines drawn to separate “Shi‘i” from “Sunni” areas. The Supreme Council, for its part, had apparently been outpaced by the comeback of this vision. In the January 2005 local elections, which some Shi‘i parties boycotted, the Supreme Council had managed to gain a foothold in several provinces south of Baghdad (though not in Basra and Maysan, sites of the main southern oilfields). Now, in an attempt to avoid the insertion of a date certain for provincial elections in the governorates law, the Supreme Council cited practical problems that would accompany early polls because many local offices of the Iraqi electoral commission remain inoperative. That argument, of course, would logically apply with equal force to any referenda upon new federal regions. Hence, if the Supreme Council is to remain consistent in its rhetoric, the southern super-province project must be put on ice until local elections offices are ready.


There could be other players in the federalism game come April 2008, however. On February 20, Wa’il ‘Abd al-Latif, a former judge and now member of Parliament for Basra, told the southern television channel al-Fayha that he was about to start efforts to create, “in accordance with the constitution,” a “region of Basra” limited to Iraq’s second city and environs, and thus separate from the rest of the Shi‘a of Iraq. In fact, this project dates back five years, and is the only federalist movement among the Shi‘a that cuts across party lines: It receives support from secular politicians (like ‘Abd al-Latif), from tribal leaders and from Islamist opponents of the Supreme Council, such as Fadhila.

Basra’s regionalism shows that Iraqi Shi‘a are not divided into two camps on the issue of federalism, but rather into three: centralists who want a strong Baghdad government, small-scale federalists and those advocating larger, ethno-sectarian regions. On many issues, however, the centralists and the small-scale federalists see eye to eye, as with regard to administration of the oil sector, where ‘Abd al-Latif, like many centralists, has spoken in favor of control by Baghdad. The main cleavage with respect to the question of devolution in Iraq is thus more accurately characterized as setting off the ethno-federalists (the Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties) from all the other groups. Indeed, the latter might well be thought of as “conservative moderates” or even “centrists” for proposing a decisive halt to the demolition of existing Iraqi structures of government that was initiated by US administrator L. Paul Bremer back in 2003. In the centrist view, it is time to start reconstruction in Iraq on the basis of existing infrastructure, instead of destroying even more of the current system, or generating further potential for civil conflict through divisive federal adventures and imagined sectarian “regions” of which no one had even heard prior to 2005.[6]

Notwithstanding the trend toward centrism in the Iraqi parliament, the ethno-federalists had one more card to play. At night on February 26, in the middle of a parliamentary recess and on the eve of the Arba‘in religious holiday, the Supreme Council’s ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi slipped a bombshell into a letter to his colleagues on the three-person Iraqi presidency council. By the terms of the 2005 constitution, this council is composed of a president (currently, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and two vice presidents, all three of whom have the prerogative to veto legislation passed by Parliament. In his February 26 missive ‘Abd al-Mahdi, one of the vice presidents and a Bush administration favorite, announced his veto of the recent law on the powers of the governorates.[7] In his view, many of the law’s provisions for a degree of central control over the governorates were “unconstitutional.” ‘Abd al-Mahdi clearly stretched the legal limits on his power to the maximum: According to the constitution, vetoes must be declared within ten days of receipt of laws at the presidency council, and the letter was sent 13 days after the disputed piece of legislation’s passage. Even in the middle of the holiday season, other Iraqi politicians reacted furiously, with ‘Abd al-Mahdi’s fellow Shi‘i Islamists in the Sadrist and Da‘wa movements prominent among the protesters.

What happens next with the law on the powers of governorates? The answer is not entirely clear. From the constitutional point of view, the process should be straightforward. Once Parliament reconvenes in mid-March, its members can debate the law and send it back to the presidency council, which will have to adopt it by consensus or reject it within ten days. It then goes back to Parliament, but this time the legislature has the power to ratify the law without presidential consensus. The caveat is that ratification must take place not by simple majority but by three-fifths super-majority (not two-thirds as claimed in some news stories). A complicating factor is that, through certain arguments in his letter, ‘Abd al-Mahdi enters the domain of constitutional review, which properly belongs to Iraq’s federal supreme court, instituted by the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law and still operative pending the establishment of a new court pursuant to the 2005 constitution. In fact, that court has already issued an opinion on the powers of the governorates, specifically limiting these to areas not among the “exclusive powers of the federal government” enumerated in the constitution.[8] But ‘Abd al-Mahdi refers to “legal experts” in his own office who will come up with suggestions for amendments. This practice of circumventing the emerging Iraqi judicial structure is quite typical of the ethno-federalist bloc. Lately, the Kurdish parties have been trumpeting a legal opinion that essentially argues that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s law on oil is more in tune with the Iraqi constitution than the draft law of the central government — the problem being that the author, British lawyer James Crawford, is not a member of Iraq’s federal supreme court, whose very existence is ignored in his brief note.[9]


A great challenge to the diverse centrist coalition is the immense support given to its ethno-federalist opponents by players outside the 15 Iraqi governorates that are not part of a federal region. Firstly, there is the powerful backing of the Kurdish parties for the Supreme Council, which often seems aimed at depriving Baghdad of any real capacity for governance. The Kurdish parties are aligned with advocates of “soft partition” in the United States, like Sen. Biden, who tirelessly conjure images of an Iraq neatly split in three and who are programmatically opposed to any restoration of a powerful Baghdad in Iraq. Even in more modest statements, champions of “soft partition” insist on unconstitutional “conferences” that might well serve to perpetuate the hegemony of the ethno-federalists, who are proven masters of the art of backroom deals. The international media, for its part, simply refuses to recognize the existence of the second party in the ongoing two-way struggle. Instead the media read every single move on the Iraqi political scene as part of a “battle” between Iraq’s “main contending factions, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds” — as seen, for example, in coverage of the law on the powers of governorates, largely presented to American readers as a “Shiite objective” in a grand compromise where the Kurds got “their” budget and the Sunni Arabs “their” amnesty law.[10] The deep intra-Shi‘i divisions on the governorates law and the Sadrist demands for a strong amnesty law were conveniently ignored; only the ethno-federalist players were even acknowledged.

Arguably, though, the greatest problem for the Iraqi centrists is what may be termed “Bush’s Biden policy.” While Washington speaks an admirable language of fidelity to strong central government, in practice it consistently extends material and moral support to the opposite camp, the ethno-federalists that share Biden’s vision for Iraq. In 2003, Bremer acceded to Kurdish demands to maintain peshmerga militias; in 2004, the US let the Kurdish parties introduce the fateful concept of “disputed areas” into the Transitional Administrative Law, whereby the old regime’s displacement of individual Iraqis can be redressed by collective demands on territory framed in an ethnic language. Since 2005, when it launched the divisive project of a single sectarian region south of Baghdad, the Supreme Council’s relationship with Washington has prospered. Whenever there is talk in Washington about an alternative to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the discussion tends to focus on the Supreme Council’s man (and the instigator of the presidential veto of the governorates law), ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi. ‘Abd al-Mahdi’s accession to power would probably mean the evaporation of the last remnants of centralist thinking in the Iraqi government, currently represented by Maliki personally, as well as figures like Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani. Conversely, Washington maintains little or no contact with representatives of the centrist trend whose vision for the future is far more compatible with the long-standing stated objective of US policy: a unified, multi-ethnic Iraq.

It is policy contradictions like these that facilitate the persistence of ethno-federalist dominance in Iraq, despite clear signs that this current is losing influence in the Iraqi parliament and among the Iraqi people south of Kurdistan. The ethno-federalists may not enjoy a parliamentary majority, but they have secured control of two of the three seats on the Iraqi presidency council. They cannot dictate the legislative agenda, but have managed to jostle their way to a blocking majority on the committee charged with revising the Iraqi constitution. Today, in a most ironic manner, Iraqi politics has come almost full circle in a gradual liberation from sectarianism: An institution originally designed in 2005 by the ethno-federalists to protect communal interests — the presidency council — is now being used by one of the vice presidents, ‘Abd al-Mahdi, to guard his ruling faction against democratic pressures framed in Iraqi nationalist terms, including from a majority within his “own” Shi‘i community. There are signs that at least some groups inside the government have had enough of the centrifugal forces associated with the ethno-federalists, with the Supreme Council’s complaints about the police in Nasiriyya and Basra suggesting that its supposed monopoly on the security forces south of Baghdad is much exaggerated. But until US policymakers realize the growing importance of the centrist trend in Iraq there can be no real alternative US policy: The major “alternatives” to Biden’s ideas on the Democratic side — withdrawal or a focus on fighting al-Qaeda — would only mean a freeze of current power structures and an irreversible head start for the axis of the Kurdish parties and the Supreme Council. These parties, notably, have benefited and continue to benefit from a disproportionate share of US spending on supposedly “national” institutions of government, including the arming and training of branches of the country’s security services. In the meantime, those Iraqis trying to push their country’s politics in a more sensible direction will continue to face a formidable opposition, made up of the combined forces of Republicans and Democrats in the United States, Iran and their ethno-federalist Iraqi partners.


[1] Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2007.

[2] Personal communication from Shi‘i intellectual in exile, August 22, 2007.

[3] See Reidar Visser, “Nonsense of Congress on Federalism in Iraq,” December 13, 2007, posted at

[4] Al-Bayyina, January 14, 2008.

[5] Proceedings of the Iraqi parliament, January 28, 2008. Author’s files.

[6] The acute lack of historical precedent is of special relevance to the nine-governorate “Shi‘i” region. See Reidar Visser, “The Two Regions of Southern Iraq,” in Reidar Visser and Gareth Stansfield, eds., An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[7] Letter 319 from Vice President ’Adil ’Abd al-Mahdi to the diwan of the Iraqi presidency council, February 26, 2008.

[8] Midhat al-Mahmoud to Iraq’s council of representatives, August 1, 2007. Author’s files.

[9] Jeremy P. Carver to Nechirvan Barzani, January 29, 2008. Among other things, Carver (head of the legal firm that procured the document for the Kurds) claims that the opinion shows that the Iraqi draft oil law is constitutionally “void.” Author’s files.

[10] See, for instance, Agence France Presse, February 13, 2008.

(Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website