Can Iraq’s Basra province become the Kurdistan of the south?

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Basra's vital port is Iraq's only port and the country's access to important waterways. AFP

By: Moataz al-Mashhadani

Published Thursday, December 4, 2014

Who rules Iraq? This is not a question about the identity of the prime minister in Baghdad, but rather about the internal mechanisms of governance and the relationship between the capital and other provinces. The oil-rich Basra governorate is central to this question. To what extent can it be described as the Kurdistan of the south?

Basra – There have been several protests in Basra demanding that the governorate be declared an autonomous region. Dozens of employees in the oil sector participated in the protests to demand that Basra be in charge of the Oil Ministry. Despite differing opinions on federalism among various political factions in the province, whereby some parties and movements oppose it while others support it to varying degrees, the political majority aspire to establish a federal region.

A number of local officials support the project in secret but refuse to express their view about the issue in public because it contradicts the position of their parties and movements whose leaders reside in Baghdad.

Efforts to gain autonomy in Basra go back to the 1920s, specifically to 1921, when a number of clergy, tribal leaders, politicians and merchants from Basra signed a petition that they submitted to the British government. The document stated that the people of Basra want nothing but the wellbeing of the people of Iraq and desire nothing more than to walk side-by-side in a manner that benefits both sides and the world in general. However, they believe this can not be achieved except by granting Basra its own political independence. They also wanted Basra to be declared a Gulf statelet subject to British protection like neighboring Kuwait. The British, however, ignored their request because they wanted to see a strong central government in Baghdad.

Mohammed al-Taie, an MP representing Basra, told Al-Akhbar: “Establishing a semi-autonomous region is necessary to organize the wealth and power in any country whose federal government has failed in its performance and management of the state.” He pointed out that, according to the constitution, establishing a region can be done “if one third of the provincial council votes yes or one-tenth of voters in any given governorate do, and that doesn’t mean 300,000, it only means registered voters and they are a lot less than that. Besides, the people of Basra – as the interested party – have come to support the idea.”

The head of the legal committee at the Basra provincial council, Ahmed Abdel Hussein told Al-Akhbar that “the question of establishing a region is a constitutional matter stipulated by the Iraqi constitution, which is subject to a popular referendum. Therefore, a governorate or more have the right, if they come to an agreement, to declare themselves a ‘region,’ which is what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

He added: “The Iraqi constitution stipulates that Iraq is a federal republic, meaning, it consists of a capital and a number of semi-autonomous regions. Therefore, the issue is a constitutional and a legal one and it is not even controversial.” He pointed out that “there are conditions that should be met when a governorate wants to declare itself a semi-autonomous region. The most important condition is consensus and a political and popular will to move in that direction.”

It is important to note that the Iraqi constitution does not use the word federalism. Its first article states: “The Republic of Iraq is a single federal, independent and fully sovereign state in which the system of government is republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic, and this constitution is a guarantor of the unity of Iraq.” Article 116 states: “The federal system in the Republic of Iraq is made up of a decentralized capital, regions and governorates, as well as local administrations.” Article 119 states: “One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following two methods: First: A request by one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region. Second: A request by one-tenth of the voters in each of the governorates intending to form a region.” And Article 118 states: “The Council of Representatives shall enact, in a period not to exceed six months from the date of its first session, a law that defines the executive procedures to form regions, by a simple majority of the members present.”

Abdel Hussein continues: “Solving the problems that the governorates are facing, including Basra, centers around the question of powers and decentralization. The federal government is trying to take away powers granted to local governments by the Provincial Powers Act (PPA) or Law 21, which gave local governments and provincial councils broad powers and guaranteed the transfer of these powers from some service ministries to local governments that are not part of a region.”

Abdel Hussein explains that “most ministers in the cabinet want to take away powers from local governments and return to a centralized system that we suffered from tremendously and which will cripple local governments and delay the process of reconstruction in Iraqi provinces. Local governments in this case will become powerless. That’s why I believe the best solution for this problem is to establish regions, provided that they are not built on a sectarian or racial basis but on an administrative basis and are part of a strong, fully sovereign central federal authority. These regions should also be in the service of the federal government, providing Iraqi citizens with services through the financial and administrative powers they have without having to refer to the federal government in every little matter.”

Grassroots youth groups in Basra have established several organizations and groups that call for declaring the province a region, one of which is the “Sons of the Basra Region.” One of its founding members says: “Basra is unjustly treated and deprived of its rights. The people of Basra complain and suffer even though their city is one of the richest cities in the world but they do not benefit from its riches. The only ones who benefit are the politicians, important people and other cities that benefit from our riches without count.” He called on the people of Basra to “join the group so we can regain all our rights. If the goal is a little daunting, all of us should unite to achieve it in order to fulfill our hope and that is the Basra region.”

Journalist Najah Mohammed from Basra stands in solidarity with those who want to turn the province into a region but believes that the issue will be postponed at the moment. She says: “Declaring the Basra province a region is a right guaranteed by the constitution and the law but the time is not suitable now. I don’t agree with those who want to declare the Basra region now because the circumstances that Iraq is going through politically, economically and in terms of security wouldn’t allow it, especially as the terrorist gangs of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) control some Iraqi cities and provinces.”

According to some reports, there are recurrent complaints in Basra, which is a strategically important province. Its population is nearly 3 million, making it the second largest province in the country in terms of population. It has about 70 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, which amount to 143.1 billion barrels. It is the only Iraqi province located along the Gulf and has borders with Kuwait and Iran. It is Iraq’s only outlet to the Gulf and the center from which most of the country’s oil exports, about 1.9 million barrels daily, set sail.

Despite all that, Basra looks like a city that has been forgotten. It has been destroyed by consecutive wars, from the 1980-1988 war with Iran to the invasion of Kuwait and the US invasion of 2003. Along its edges, residential settlements for the needy have mushroomed, its streets are covered with piles of garbage and sewer water and some of its neighborhoods lack water and electricity.

Nevertheless, oil promises a prosperous future for Basra. Six out of the 15 oil and natural gas deals made with private companies since last year – the first of their kind in three decades – have to do with fields in the Basra province. As soon as it gains semi-autonomy, Basra will be able to receive a bigger share of the oil profits and to have more say in how these profits will be used. Besides, this will guarantee Basra a larger share of the budget distributed among the provinces to fund local administrations.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


very thoughtful and well-written piece. curious to see how this movement develops over time

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