What about Iraqi federalism?

Roughly 10 years after it was declared a federal state, Iraq is not yet on course to become a stable, peaceful and united nation, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraq’s parliament is expected to debate divisive laws soon that could escalate the struggle over power, territory and resources among the country’s multiple ethno-sectarian groups.
The move, which has renewed discussion of federalism in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, comes amid a new wave of sectarian violence and a chronic political crisis that has paralysed the country following Saddam’s ouster by the US-led invasion in 2003.
Among the proposed legislation is a new law to redraw the frontiers between Iraq’s 18 provinces that has already sparked fears of partitioning the war-torn country.
The controversial law is being pushed for by the autonomous Kurdish enclave in the north of the country, but it is vehemently opposed by Sunni Arabs, ethnic Turkomans and many Shias.
It was originally proposed by the Kurdish President Jalal Talabani in 2011, but was not tabled for debate by parliament. Many members had argued that Talabani, who is a ceremonial president, had no right to suggest legislation. It was then vetoed by Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
The Kurds hope that the proposed law would solve a dispute over territories which they claim were ordered by the Saddam regime to be annexed by neighbouring Arab-dominated provinces.
The mainly Sunni Iraqiya List described the proposed law as a recipe to undermine peace in Iraq. “It will have huge demographical consequences because it will cut land from some provinces and give it to others,” the group said in a statement.
The Shia Sadrist Movement, believed to have a strong political presence in the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other disputed territories, also voiced reservations about the new law.
The Turkomans, who are considered Iraq’s third-largest ethnicity, also rejected the proposal which they said would allow the Kurds to seize territories populated by Turkomans.
Arshad Al-Salehi of the Turkomans Front, the community’s political arm, said a Turkoman province should be established first in Tuzkhormato where the ethnic community is in a majority.
Like the Arabs in the disputed territories, the Turkomans say they want to maintain the unity of Iraq and save Kirkuk from being annexed by the Kurdish region.
The Turkomans also accuse the Kurds of being behind a series of blasts in their areas recently in efforts to force them to leave their territories.
Even a parliamentary committee that should make recommendations for the bill seems to have doubts about its viability.
“It is fraught with disagreements,” said Mansour Al-Timimi, deputy for the committee’s chairman.
The Kurds, meanwhile, argue that the law, if adopted, will strengthen Iraq’s unity and prevent its partitioning.
Arif Tayfour, a Kurdish deputy speaker of the parliament, accused Arabs opposing the bill of being chauvinistic.
Surprisingly, there has been no public discussion on the suggested law. Many Iraqis believe that redrawing the provincial borders is an incendiary issue that could lead to further deterioration in security and instability.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution states that the country is a federal state. But while the Kurds have raised federalism to the status of a national mythology because it is tied to their aspirations for independence, Arab Sunnis, Turkomans and many Shias seem not to be ready to learn to live with its problems.
Indeed, for many Arabs federalism is seen as synonymous with partition, and they fear that federalism could eventually lead to Iraq’s partition.
But many Sunnis are disgruntled with the US-orchestrated political process and the constitution which they believe has empowered Shias and Kurds at their expense.
Some Sunnis have started talking in recent months about federalism as a solution to their perceived marginalisation by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
But most Sunnis remain opposed to federalism and hope that by continuing their protests and resistance to the political system they will be able to regain prominence a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country toppled Saddam’s minority Sunni regime and propelled Iraq’s majority Shias to power.
“Federalism is the gateway for partition,“ said prominent Sunni cleric Abdel-Malik Al-Saadi, who is widely seen as a spiritual leader of the Sunnis, on Thursday in a statement.
The other controversial piece of legislation that the parliament is set to debate is a law that will set up a supreme federal council.
Under the Iraqi constitution, there should be a Federation Council, an upper chamber of parliament that represents regions and governorates. This should be composed of representatives of the regions and all governorates that have not joined a region.
The council’s main goal is to enhance the separation of powers, serve as a buffer between the executive branch and the lower legislative chamber, and afford the regions and governorates and their constituents a greater voice within the central government.
But the idea of the council has never been activated due to a lack of consensus among Iraqi factions on its composition, powers and procedures.
The Kurds have also been pushing hard to establish the Council, which they hope will function to safeguard the privileges of their region from excessive overreach by the federal government.
While it remains highly unlikely that the parliament will pass the bills, plenty of Iraqis doubt that the new laws will provide the proper medicine for their country’s gridlock.
Last month, the parliament endorsed legislation to amend the provincial administration law which would give local governments great powers. The legislation was aimed to give the provinces incentives and contain autonomy movements by giving them alternative self-governance arrangements.
Under the new law, elected provincial councils will have wide-ranging powers in decision-making related to the administration of the local governments.
It gives local governments the right to supervise all the activities of state departments in the provinces, including the security forces, in order to ensure the proper execution of their duties.
The law also increases the petrodollar shares in the oil-producing provinces from $1 to $5 per barrel.
The controversy over the proposed laws, however, has sparked fears that the dispute over federalism could further deepen ethnic and sectarian groups’ lack of confidence in Iraq’s political system and in the prospects for peace.
Since the start of the holy month of Ramadan on 10 July, violence has spiked and attacks have killed and wounded dozens of people, most of them near mosques.
The new acts of violence have raised fears that Iraq is heading toward an apocalyptic sectarian war reminiscent of the one that peaked in 2006 and 2007. More than 2,600 people have been killed since the start of April.
Among the worst areas affected by the violence are cities and towns in disputed territories, highlighting the precarious situation in these areas.
In a country scarred by violence and facing an uncertain future, it is imperative for Iraqi politicians to reexamine the political system they forged under the US occupation, including the constitution and federalism, in order to move toward some degree of stability.
Given the mixed feelings of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups towards federalism, Iraqi politicians are faced with a hard choice — between leaving Iraq’s unity hanging in the balance and reforming the political system.
If it comes to this decision, they should not ditch the unity of the country.

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