By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
11 November 2008
The Basra parliamentarian and former member of Wifaq Wail Abd al-Latif has announced that a petition requesting a referendum for the creation of the federal region of Basra (Iqlim al-Basra) as a standalone entity has been submitted to the Iraqi electoral commission, featuring 34,800 signatures. The petitioners believe that this number is sufficient to meet the requirement that at least 2% of the governorate population should sign the initial petition (this would correspond to a total Basra population of 1,740,000).
According to the framework for the creation of federal regions adopted by the Iraqi parliament with a tiny majority in October 2006, the next step now is for the petition to be published in local newspapers by the electoral commission which should then give supporters of the project at least one month to add their names to the petition to meet the required total of one tenth of the voter population necessary to call a referendum on the formation of a federal region (50% of the votes and 50% participation is required to win). If a region is formed it cannot join with any other federal region, only with additional governorates (the first draft of the October 2006 law said, “a federal region consists of one or more governorates or one or more federal regions”; this was subsequently changed to read “a federal region consists of a governorate or more” which clearly seems to suggest a desire on the framers of the law to exclude the possibility of two regions joining together).
The further process towards a final decision on the fate of the Basra federal initiative will be influenced by political struggles as well as numerous legal ambiguities. Politically, the idea of Basra as a separate federal entity has been under consideration since late 2003, but for a time coexisted with a scheme of joining Basra with the two neighbouring governorates of Maysan and Dhi Qar (Iqlim al-Janub). Then, from around 2006 onwards, the idea of Basra as a one-governorate federal region emerged as the most prominent of the local federal schemes, with supporters both among secularists (Wail Abd al-Latif), tribal leaders (such as Amr al-Faiz) and Islamists (the Fadila party).
Political aspects and legal ones are connected to each other with respect to what this initiative means in terms of a challenge to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), one of the Shiite parties that both the United States and Iran consider as one of their main partners in Iraq. Their competing idea of creating a huge nine-governorate sectarian Shiite region from Basra to the border of Baghdad has failed to create popular enthusiasm since its launch in August 2005. The formation of Basra as a federal region would entail additional difficulties for ISCI, which would face a more complicated roadmap in case they should wish to create a scheme for additional Shiite governorates to join the oil-rich Basra in a super-region. They do have the option of launching a competing initiative locally in Basra (this would be followed by a pre-referendum poll that would decide which of the schemes should go to a referendum); however the modalities for this and in particular the timeline is poorly specified in the October 2006 law, and ISCI seems to enjoy far less support in Basra than in Najaf (where there is almost no oil). This lack of legal clarity, along with the general trend towards more national attitudes in the Iraqi parliament as a whole (witness ISCI’s gradual retreat from its pro-federal propaganda and Nuri al-Maliki’s recent renewed call for a more centralised state), means that the future of the Basra federal initiative is far from certain. Some Iraqi nationalists consider it to be less harmful than federal schemes that are explicitly sectarian (such of that of ISCI), whereas others (including many in Basra itself) think that any extension of the federal principle south of Kurdistan remains objectionable.
Also on this topic:
Suffering, Oil, and Ideals of Coexistence: Non-Sectarian Federal Trends in the Far South of Iraq
Iraq Federalism Bill Adopted Amid Protests and Joint Shiite–Sunni Boycott
The Draft Law for the Formation of Regions: A Recipe for Permanent Instability in Iraq?