Is it time to consider a more federalised Iraq?

Is it time to consider a more federalised Iraq?
Comment: Could granting more autonomy to the oil-rich region of Basra help its residents improve their livelihood? asks Paul Iddon.
5 min read
19 Apr, 2019
Iraqis demonstrate against unemployment and a lack of basic services near Basra's oil fields [AFP]
The southern Iraqi province of Basra is once again floating the idea of autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.

This comes after decades of neglect that has seen the people of this oil-rich province deprived of even the most basic services and infrastructure. Given this neglect, it's time Basra's people are permitted some self-determination to improve the dire conditions in their province.

"We want to rebuild Basra, and we are not going to take over the oil, it's the wealth of all Iraqis. We assure you that we are not having that ugly segregated behaviour, don't try us because we are going through the process of setting up a provincial government despite the consequences," said Hussein al-Karim, a protester in the region.

He made this comment in light of the Basra Provincial Council's announcement that it will hold a local referendum over making Basra an autonomous federal region of Iraq.

This certainly isn't the first time Basra floated this idea. However, even though there were numerous protests there in recent years, conditions in the region have shown no sign of improving, which means that a greater push for autonomy was always inevitable.

Basra sits atop one of the most oil-rich areas in the world. Despite this, the province remains one of the poorest and under-developed parts of the entire country.

Conditions in the region have shown no sign of improving, which means that a greater push for autonomy was always inevitable

Some residents claim that the last time they had a reliable supply of clean drinking water was as far back as 1982.

Basra's canals once even saw the city compared to Venice. Today, as Reuters noted, the "waterways that earned it comparisons with the Italian city are now filthy pools of stagnant water".

During protests against Baghdad in the region back in 2015, one demonstrator displayed a witty placard which compared the region to a bony milking cow, a perfect metaphor for Basra's situation.

It is hoped that by attaining a reasonable degree of self-determination, residents can rebuild the region, which has suffered successive wars and instability since 1980.

Before this downward spiral for Basra began with the Iran-Iraq war, the province had enormous potential. In the late 1970s, the oil boom Iraq experienced saw the area begin to develop rapidly. One LA Times report from the period pointed out that Basra was "destined to be the centre of Iraq's industrialisation effort".

"Outside Basra, construction cranes poke up above the flatlands marking a start on the petrochemical, refining, steel, cement and paper plants that will play a major role in shaping Iraq's economic future," the same report added.

The Iraqi authorities of the day stressed they were using their newly acquired oil billions for the development and expansion of agricultural lands in the area, not just for new mega industrial projects.

In disregard of these considerate long-term plans, however, many farmers chose to abandon their traditional work in the fields in order to pursue higher paying jobs in the city's booming construction industry.

Iraq's women petroleum engineers worked on the oil rigs in Basra at that time, one of them heading up the entire rig and its crew.

It seemed at that time that Basra had the potential to rapidly develop and transform seemingly overnight into an economic powerhouse, perhaps even something resembling the rapid growth of Dubai into a major metropolis.

Instead, it was reduced by a combination of lengthy conflict and extreme poverty into an under-developed region of Iraq, where basic necessities like drinking water are in chronic short supply.

After almost four decades, residents have clearly had enough, and want the opportunity to decide their own destiny through some limited self-governance.

It seemed at that time that Basra had the potential to rapidly develop and transform seemingly overnight into an economic powerhouse

The creation of an autonomous entity in Iraq is completely legal under the Iraqi Constitution. According to Article 119, Iraq's provinces have "the right to organise into a region."

However, the only autonomous region in the country remains the Kurdistan region. Successive governments in Baghdad have long opposed such decentralisation.

Read more: Detrimental or beneficial? The status of foreign troops in Iraq

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi even expressed his desire to dismantle Kurdistan's autonomy following that region's independence referendum in September 2017, and advocated for this on 
a failed campaign tour in the region in early 2018.

In 2016, then governor of Kirkuk Najmaldin Karim suggested making Kirkuk its own federal region between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad, both of which lay claim to that disputed territory.

He was opposed from both sides but later revealed that Abadi confided to him that it was a good idea, but he could not approve it since it could've seen several other dissatisfied provinces in Iraq seek the same, and weaken the federal government's control over the country.

Basra sits atop one of the most oil-rich areas in the world

"That's only on paper," Karim later said of Article 119. "Anybody who tries to go that way, they [the Iraqi government] stop it."

Iraq's incumbent prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, is seen as a more moderate Iraqi leader. He has overseen the repairing of relations with Kurdistan on good terms and has so far adopted a much more conciliatory approach for dealing with Iraq's problems than his predecessors did.

It's presently unclear if he can manoeuvre the federal government in Baghdad to take solid steps to improve the dire conditions on the ground in Basra. If he cannot, then he should at least grant Basra some autonomy and give its people a long overdue chance to finally improve their livelihood.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.