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Federations Magazine Article
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Iraqis struggle over map for a federal state

asra could b ecome a
second Dubai, according to
some Iraqi politicians.
How the militia-dominated
southern Iraqi city could become
the second New York of the Middle East
seems at first glance beyond belief.
Tired of being caught in the crossfire,
some civilians opposed to the U.S. and
coalition forces in Iraq have started to
turn against militiamen of all stripes. Yet
opposing the insurgents is one thing.
Deciding what the new federal map of
Iraq should look like is a more difficult
In one vision of the future, the
Iraqis struggle
over map for a
federal state
But federal system expected
to remain unstable
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq federalism website
His books include Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq; and, co-edited with Gareth Stansfield, An Iraq
of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
B The dispute over Iraq’s
federal regions
New visions of Iraq’s federal map
began to emerge in April 2008. That
was when Iraq’s 18 provinces gained
the right to apply to the central government
to become federal regions. These
new regions get funding and powers,
including the right to establish local
paramilitary forces.
However, because a group of provinces
would be allowed to merge to
form one federal region, Sunni politicians
in central Iraq saw red. They
feared there would be an oil-rich
Kurdistan in the north and an oil-rich
“Shia-stan” in the south, with the
Sunni provinces in the centre left with
no resources.
The spectre of three warring provinces
seems less likely in 2008 than in
2003. Iraqis are beginning to think
along economic rather than sectarian
lines. There are suggestions for five
federal regions or more. Politicians are
also talking about funding regions by
giving them a percentage of all oil revenues
on the basis of population.
Parliamentarians attend the raising of the new
Iraqi flag at Cabinet headquarters in Baghdad
in February. Two months later, provinces
gained the right to become federal regions – or
to merge into larger regions.
Reuters /Ho New
province of Basrah can return to its former
glory as the Venice of the East, as it
was once called, if it plays its cards wisely
in Iraq’s federalization process.
Basra could choose autonomy as a
stand-alone entity within a federal Iraq.
Abd al-Latif, a Shia Muslim in his late 50s,
is one who is confident about the potential
of Iraq’s south. He says that it should
have no special connections with the
other eight Shia-majority provinces
south of Baghdad.
Creation of a so-called “Shia-stan” in
southern Iraq has been a dream for some
Shia leaders since the overthrow of dictator
Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the north,
the Kurdish provinces have already
formed a united federal region, while in
the centre, the Sunni Arab provinces
have not expressed a desire to move in
this direction.
The Shiastan vision is for Najaf in central
Iraq to become the capital of a federal
mega-region of nine Shia provinces
extending from Basra on the Persian Gulf
to Baghdad. One proponent of this plan
is Osad Abu Gulal, also a Shia and the
governor of Najaf province. But unlike al-
Latif, Abu Gulal thinks big. While Abu
Gulal is proud of Najaf’s holy shrines and
the millions of Shia pilgrims they attract,
he wants to become part of a larger federal
entity that can unite Iraq’s Shias.
Until today, clashing visions of Iraq’s
federal future have been abstract battles
of ideas – little more than chess games
played by elderly men in tea shops. These
abstractions became more concrete in
mid-April 2008, when Iraq’s federalization
process entered its second phase.
(Its first phase was the adoption by public
referendum of a law by which the
region of Kurdistan became a recognized
federal region of Iraq.)
New rules for provinces
While Iraq is a federal state under the
2005 constitution, until recently, only
Kurdistan has been recognized as a federal
entity; the rest of the country was
governed as a unitary state, and run from
of Baghdad. In mid-April, the 15 provinces
south of Kurdistan (a de facto union
of three provinces) became free to decide
whether to follow the Kurdistan model.
Iraqis are following an unusual procedure
as they go about delineating their
future federal map. Most federations are
the product of centuries of historical evolution
or negotiations by politicians.
The Iraqi constitution requires that
new federal entities be formed “from
below,” through popular initiatives. Onetenth
of each province’s voters or
one-third of the members of each elected
provincial council (in effect, the province’s
legislature) can demand a
referendum for a federal region – involving
a single province or several joining
together. Such an initiative must first be
chosen in preference over other proposals
from those who prefer a different
configuration of provinces; this is done
in a “pre-referendum poll.” The proposal
drawing the most votes must then win by
a simple majority in all provinces that are
to be merged together. For a proposal to
win, a minimum turnout of half of the
registered voters in those provinces is
Only Spain has done something
similar in the past. Many international
Continued on page 31 JUNE |
JULY 2008 Federations
11 10
17 18
Illustrati on: Yani Roume liotis
JUNE | JULY 2008 31
Ira q [from pa ge 4]
observers admire the Iraqi constitution
for its democratic and grassroots-focused
approaches to federalism. But there are
concerns the country might descend into
an endless cycle of failed referendums
and constant administrative changes.
With such possibilities for merging
provinces, the map of Iraq could change
Of the 15 provinces administered from
Baghdad, the four with a Sunni Arab
majority have shown almost no interest
in federalism. Among the nine Shiamajority
provinces, only people in Najaf
and the far south have expressed enduring
enthusiasm for federalism. Baghdad
is constitutionally barred from joining
another federal region, while the status
of the province of Kirkuk in the north is
bitterly disputed by Kurdistan’s regional
government and the central government.
An additional problem for those who
support a unified Shia federal region is
the apparent absence of support from
the top Shia clergy. In 2004, Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani blasted the U.S.-
sponsored Transitional Administrative
Law and its three-person presidency for
its “enshrinement of sectarian and ethnic
divisions … which could lead to the
fragmentation and partition of Iraq, God
The executive structure of the Iraqi
government includes a president and
two vice-presidents – by tradition, one is
Shia, one is Sunni Arab and one is
Kurdish. This is precisely the dynamic of
fragmentation along sectarian lines that
critics highlight and object to, including
many from the Shia community.
Many are concerned about Basra
going it alone. One reason is oil, which
Basrah has far more of than other areas
of Iraq. The expression “oil-rich Shia
areas” actually means little as more than
80 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves are
located in one single province – Basrah.
For many in the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq – known as ISCI – the all-
Shia federal super-region would lack its
crowning jewel if Basrah chooses separate
status instead of joining them.
Centrists say no to super-regions
An increasingly vocal majority in Iraq’s
parliament, consisting of Sunnis and
Shias, is expressing resistance to radical
changes to the administrative map south
of Kurdistan. This majority includes even
some supporters of the powerful Shia
chief Muqtada al-Sadr – people like Sadiq
al-Hasnawi, who refers to ISCI’s federal
vision as “the partition project.”
This group objects to federal maps
drawn along ethnic and sectarian lines.
To many Arabs, formal sectarianism is as
politically incorrect as institutionalized
racism. This is why any federal scheme
involving a “Sunnistan” or a “Shiastan” is
seen as the equivalent of partition.
This loose coalition of “centrists”
recently pressed a law in parliament that
focuses on rights of existing provinces
and grants them meaningful autonomy
without completely emasculating
Baghdad of its powers.
The law on non-federated provinces,
which includes a provision for holding
provincial elections by October 2008,
was supported by politicians like Bassam
al-Sharif of the Shia Fadila party, who
recently cited the need for involving
Sunni Arabs in local politics. This joint
Shia-Sunni project aims to get Iraq up
and working again, without the unpredictability
of new federal regions.
The big powers weigh in
As with everything in today’s Iraq, this is
not about what the majority in parliament
thinks. The principal advocate of a
Shia super-region, ISCI, enjoys the powerful
support of the U.S. and Iran. Even if
the Bush administration has yet to publicly
embrace ISCI’s vision of an Iraq
subdivided along ethnic and sectarian
lines, in practice, it extends full support
to ISCI and continues to give short shrift
to the centrist majority in the Iraqi parliament.
In a sign that such a position is not
just that of the U.S. Republican Party,
Democratic Senator Joseph Biden supports
ISCI’s vision in
an even more forceful
Cheney visits Iraq
In a possible change
of attitude, U.S. Vice-
P r e s i d e n t Di c k
Cheney, in a rare trip
to Iraq in March, is
said to have applied
considerable pressure
on ISCI to roll
back its veto on the
provincial law. Days
after the visit, the
Iraqi presidency council announced the
veto had been withdrawn. Aside from
this, there is little sign of increased dialogue
between Washington and the
players that represent Iraq’s centrist parliamentary
majority, such as the Sadrists,
the Fadila party, Shia independents,
Sunni Islamists and secular politicians.
Until such engagement occurs and
there is closure to Iraq’s federalism
question, the potential for chronic instability
in Iraq’s federal structure remains
Any federal
involving a
“Sunnistan” or
a “Shiastan” is
seen as the
equivalent of