An acrimonious parliamentary and public debate, accompanied by a series of boycotts by several groups of parliamentary sessions, has repeatedly forced Iraq's legislature to postpone discussion of a bill to divide Iraq into autonomous regions. The federalism bill was submitted by legislators from a faction within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a Shi’a Muslim bloc which holds the largest number of seats in parliament, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). If it is passed, this bill will allow the nine predominantly Shi’a provinces in southern and south-central Iraq to form their own autonomous region: a goal that has been a top priority of Hakim's.
The bill has angered Sunni Arab legislators, who say that parliament should keep a promise to re-examine the issue of federalism. Iraq's new constitution, which was approved in a referendum last autumn, contains provisions for the formation of federated regions. It left it to parliament to move in its first session to enact a law to specify procedures and mechanisms for setting such autonomous regions up by merging provinces. But the draft constitution was only passed after promises were made to Sunni Arabs, who fear that federalism will leave the country's oil wealth in the hands of Shi’as in the south and Kurds in the north, to review the issue of federalism. These promises were made last year as an afterthought in an attempt to break a long and overdrawn deadlock by winning the Sunni Arabs over to the draft charter.
For Sunni Arabs, who are a minority that dominated political life throughout the modern history of Iraq, federalism is a code word for separatism, secession and the division of the country. In the words of Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, "federalism is a preliminary step to dividing and fragmenting Iraq." There is clearly more than a kernel of exaggeration in equating federalism with separatism. A federalist system of government, based on institutions of local and central authority, could well be a mechanism for protecting the rights, aspirations and identities of subnational groups and geographic regions within a unified national structure of government. Sunni Arab objections to federalism stem more from communal concerns and apprehensions, as well as misconceptions about federalism, than from supra-communal, national considerations. As federalism in Iraq is likely to produce a three-part federation, Sunni Arab opponents of turning Iraq into a full federation fear this will squeeze them into Baghdad and the other resource-poor provinces in central and western Iraq. They argue that the proposed federal schemes will not establish a balance of power between central and local governments, but rather a host of effectively unitary governments. In objecting to the recent federalism bill, Sunni Arab leaders maintain that parliament should first debate the promised amendments to the constitution, instead of hastening to push through the legislature laws to define how to divide Iraqi regions. Hakim has previously said that he has no intention of changing the constitutional provisions for federalism.
But the Sunni Arabs are not alone in expressing misgivings about federalism. When Sunni Arab legislators of the IAF and the National Dialogue Front boycotted parliamentary sessions discussing the bill on federalism in September, they were joined by lawmakers of the secular Iraqi National List (INL), led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. Ayad Jamal al-Din, a Shi’a ‘alim professing allegiance to liberalism and a deep aversion to the idea of religious government, warned that the debate over federalism is sowing discord among lawmakers, saying: "It is unwise to create a problem that provokes argument between the blocs."
Even some Shi’a factions of the UIA have favoured a path toward federal territories that is slower and markedly different from the one advocated by Hakim. The followers of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila Party, for instance, have called for a system based on a decentralized administration, whereby more power and autonomy would be granted to the existing 18 provinces of Iraq. Some members of parliament who are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr have voiced reservations about the very concept of federalism, arguing that moves toward federalism should be made only after the foreign occupation has ended.
Although the idea of federalism has been floating around in Iraq for decades, it only gained prominence after the failed post-Gulf War uprisings in 1991 in northern and southern Iraq. It was proposed as the only solution that would provide assurances for the Kurds to temper growing separatist demands in their midst and to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. Throughout the 1990s the Kurds were adamant that federalism was the only way for their northern region to remain as part of Iraq and to preserve the autonomy they gained after the rebellion in 1991. A series of Iraqi opposition conferences enshrined the concept of federalism as a central plank of the opposition's discourse. The case for federalism was made by figures from every part of the Iraqi opposition's political spectrum – including Islamic activists, ethnic nationalists and secularists of both left-wing as well as liberal hues.
A notable case from the Iraqi Islamic side was made in a paper by Sayyid Hussein al-Shami, then Imam of the Dar al-Islam Centre in London. Shami, a Shi’a Muslim ‘alim who had previously been active in the ranks of the Da'awah party and become the first chair of the Shi’a Waqf Diwan, likened the federal system of government to the historical Muslim system of administration based on territorial units, known as wilayat. It is true that throughout much of its Islamic history, the geographic territory which is now modern Iraq was divided into three main provinces: Basra in the south; a central region (ruled from Kufa and later from Baghdad); and Mosul in the north. Yet Shami's analogy is simplistic. Although these divisions correspond roughly to the religious and ethnic divisions of the population, they were established and their boundaries delineated by decrees from the central government, and they enjoyed no independent legal authority. Whatever power they enjoyed was delegated from the centre. Shami's articulation of an Islamic justification for federalism in Iraq attempts to superimpose an Islamic gloss on the idea of federalism without looking into possible safeguards against secession. It also sidesteps the question of the exact balance of power and distribution of national wealth between the central and local governments.
In 2002, members of working groups set up under the auspices of the US state department to draft the "Final Report on the Transition to Democracy in Iraq" (which was discussed as a blueprint for post-Saddam Iraq in the Iraqi opposition conference in London in December 2002) maintained that some form of federalism is a pre-condition for the establishment of a successful democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq. Yet if the essence of democracy is a civil and political culture that dissolves ethnic and sectarian allegiances in favour of a broader citizenship, these very ethnic and sectarian cleavages are drawing the parameters of federalism inIraq, on the levels of both theory and practice.
The Kurds have been calling for an expansion of Iraqi Kurdistan, which currently consists of the three provinces of Arbil, Sulaymaniyyah and Duhuk, to include the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. There have also been Kurdish demands, although less vociferous, for the district of Zimar to be incorporated in the province of Ninawah, the districts of Khanaqin and Mandali in the province of Diyala, and the district of Badra in the Kurdistan region. The Kurds have long insisted that the city of Kirkuk must be the capital of Kurdistan. But Kirkuk, a microcosm of Iraq, with a highly diverse population comprised of Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, has become the centre of several competing ethnic claims. The Kurdish claim to Kirkuk has provoked outrage from Turkey, which has signalled repeatedly that it will not tolerate the incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdish region.
The success of the Kurdish experience of political autonomy has encouraged some Shi’a Arab leaders to want to emulate it in the southern provinces. Shi’a Arab proponents of federalism see in this system a safeguard against the discrimination practised against their community by successive Iraqi regimes. For them devolution of power is necessary to roll back the excessive monopolization of power at the centre, which intensified when the Ba'ath Party came to power by means of a military coup in 1968 and precluded any meaningful decision-making at the local or regional levels without the permission of the bureaucracy in Baghdad. Excessive centralisation during Ba'ath Party rule, which bred rigidity and asphyxiated creativity and innovation, was compounded by regional and sectarian inequality, which discriminated against the Shi’a and Kurdish areas. From this perspective, federalism is a safeguard against the return of dictatorship and suppression by a centralised government. The Shi’a and Kurdish proponents of federalism almost always point out that federalism is a successful system of government adopted in several countries around the world, among them the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Switzerland. A lacuna in this line of reasoning is that the constituent or subsidiary units of these federal states were independent polities well before the formation of the larger federation. When they came together to form larger political entities, the federations were more powerful in unity than in division. But what most Iraqi proponents of federalism propose to do in Iraq is the exact opposite; that is, breaking down the country into a conglomeration of ethnic and sectarian entities that might even be at war with each other. Moreover, while federations may succeed or (like the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia) fail as states, that does not necessarily mean that their success or failure can be attributed solely to their being federations.
The original proposals for federation in southern Iraq suggested a number of federal units for the region. Most of the energies were spent on arguing for setting up a southern region (iqlim al-janub), comprised of the provinces of Basra, Maysan (al-‘Amarah) and Dhi Qar (al-Nasseriyyah). A general secretariat for the southern region was formed, which set out to mobilise public support and lobby politicians for the idea of a southern region. The secretariat held two conferences in Basra, in December 2004 and March 2005, in which it affirmed that the federalism it promotes is a purely administrative arrangement with no ethnic or sectarian overtones, and called on for a revenue-sharing arrangement whereby the central government allocates for the future southern region a share of the country's wealth proportionate to its population.
Shortly after the Secretariat's second conference, SCIRI came out strongly in support of federalism. A conference held in July 2005 in Najaf by the Shahid al-Mihrab Institute for Islamic Propagation (a SCIRI outfit headed by Ammar al-Hakim, Abd al-Aziz's son) called for the formation of the Region of Central and Southern Iraq (Iqlim al-Wasat wa-al-Janub). SCIRI's proposed mega-region would include the nine predominantly-Shi’a provinces to the south of Baghdad (Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Muthanna/Samawa, Qadisiyyah/ Diwaniyyah, Babil/Hilla, Wasit/Kut, Najaf and Karbala). A communique issued by the conference maintained that these provinces constitute a "geographic and demographic unit whose people have shared aspirations and concerns." The main problem with this vision of a southern Iraqi federation is that it threatens to further polarise the country and deepen the ethnic and sectarian rifts as it attempts to draw the boundaries of the units of the Iraqi federation along sectarian and ethnic lines.
It is inevitable that there should be some sort of administrative decentralisation in post-Saddam Iraq compared to the highly centralised authority that Ba'athist rule imposed on Iraq's diverse population. But while federalism might, in theory, be a suitable system for Iraq, the debate about federalism is currently deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions that are in danger of tearing the country apart. The timing of the recent calls for federalism, at a time of escalating acts of sectarian violence, is certainly not conducive to reconciliation and stability.
Since the fall of Saddam, the debate over federalism has become another cause of tensions stoking the spiralling violence in Iraq. IfIraq were to be divided into a three-part federation, minority groups living in each region would probably feel marginalised because the dominant ethnic or sectarian group would try to shape public life in the region according to their own cultural and historical traditions. In the current climate of ethno-sectarian strife and killings, such an arrangement would increase the emigration, internal migration and displacement of minorities that have made more than 300,000 Iraqis move to try to flee violence in mixed areas this year.