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Federalism Delayed Amid Sunni, Sadrist Opposition

Iraq’s most contentious domestic political issue, a controversial plan to create an autonomous region for the Shi’a in the south and for Baghdad similar to that currently in existence in the Kurdish north, came to head this past week, and was then postponed. Yet the course of the debate put the spotlight on divisions within the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) as well as more well-known divisions between the Shi’a and the Kurds, who support autonomy, and the Sunnis, who do not. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also visited Iran, where he discussed closing the Iraq-Iran border, implementing previously-signed commercial agreements, discussed new ones, and attempted to mediate the conflict between Iran and the United States. There were further indications that the contentious issue of the design of the Iraqi flag, which divides Arabs from Kurds, might be resolved soon.

The tenor of political discussion in Iraq currently was shown in an article published in Al-Hayat Sunday, Mosque Sermons Focus on Federalism and Prosecuting Saddam. The article notes that the three most prominent issues discussed in Shi’a mosques were the federalism issue, the prime minister’s visit to Iran, and the importance of bringing Saddam Hussein to justice for his crimes against the Iraqi people. It specifically notes that Shaikh Sadr al-Din al-Qubanji emphasized the importance of Maliki’s Iran visit and the role that Iraq could play in mediating between Iran and the United States. The article states that “at the same time Sunni mosques focused on attacking statements made by the Pope, considering them hostile to Islam and to Muslims.”

Certainly the most contentious and complex political issue now is the provincial autonomy or federalism plan which was included in the constitution approved last year and which is primarily sponsored by the most powerful Shi’a faction, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), along with the Kurdish factions. Because the bulk of Iraq’s oil wealth is in the south and north-central parts of the country, Sunnis fear that the Shi’a and Kurds will use autonomous provinces to dominate the oil industry and leave them behind (for other English sources, see the Washington Post and Reuters).

According to Arab media reports (Al-Rafidayn, Al-Hayat), the three Sunni parties - the Iraqi Accord, headed by Adnan Dulaimi, the Iraqi National List, headed by Iyad Allawi, and the National Dialogue Party, headed by Salih Mutlak - all opposed the bill strongly. Both Dulaimi and Mutlak threatened to pull their parties from parliament if it were passed in its original form, which granted wide powers to the proposed autonomous regions. Al-Rafidayn notes that on September 10 the parliament decided to send the bill back to committee, to be discussed again in the middle of this week.

Interestingly, Al-Hayat reports that the opposing parties have sought a legal remedy, and have asked the Iraqi Supreme Court to declare that article 142 of the constitution, which bears on the amendment to the constitution, be interpreted to require that amendments be considered before other constitutional matters, including Article 118, which stipulates that the parliament shall set for the procedures to govern the formation of federal regions. The argument of precedence is based on the fact that 142 has a shorter time for completion than 118 ([PDF] full text of the Iraqi constitution in English). Moreover, the Accord Front, which is the strongest Sunni party, suggested that it might accept federalism if sufficient amendments were made to the bill regarding the powers of the regions, and the Kurdish Coalition indicated that it was willing to agree to Sunni demands that constitutional reforms precede final voting on the autonomy issue, while nevertheless noting that approval of their autonomy was a “red line” for the Kurds. The leadership of the UIA, meanwhile, stressed that the creation of the federal regions was a constitutional obligation, but that they did not wish to paralyze parliament and agreed to the postponement.

Separately, Al-Hayat reported that the Sadrist faction came out strongly against federalism while the smaller Fadhila, which has often aligned itself with the Sadriya, opposed implementation of autonomy now while its leader Karim al-Ya’qubi voiced support for it in principle, saying that the timing was bad, but that federalism was a constitutional right. The article quoted Dawa leader Haydar al-Abadi as saying that while the party supported federalism but had “reservations” about the bill, saying that he hoped they would be addressed as amendments were discussed.

This means that the idea of a federated Iraq has wide but qualified support. The Kurdish factions have slightly more than 20 percent of the seats, and SCIRI and Shi’a independents aligned with them have about the same, so 40-45 percent of the parliament is ardently pro-federalism. Another 13 percent of seats are held by the Dawa factions and Fadhila, which support federalism in principle but with reservations about the timing and manner of SCIRI’s current proposal. The Sadrists and the Sunnis are strongly opposed, and they make up only a third of all seats. (The UIA has four main factions, SCIRI, Dawa, Sadr and Fadhila. The remainder of the seats not accounted for here are held by small parties not prominently featured in the federalism debate.) Even some of the Sunnis, as noted, would accept federalism if sufficient conditions are attached.

The article in the Post quotes a Sadr representative, Riyadh Nuri, as saying that they were opposed to the federalism plan on principle because it would divide Iraq, and this despite the fact that “the Sadr movement enjoys wide support of the majority of the people in the center and the south.” The claim of principled opposition is constantly repeated in Iraqi debates, but the claim of majority support is not made to Arab newspapers because it is manifestly not true. While support for Sadr grew in the last elections, his faction received 22 percent of the UIA seats, or about nine percent of the entire country. The Sadriya, like Fadhila, is stronger in Basra than elsewhere in the south. We discussed the threat of the federalism plan to the Sadrists in our August 11 report, Maliki Declares Federal Control in Basra (see last two paragraphs).

The other major political topic in Iraq last week was Prime Minister Maliki’s trip to Iran, a follow-up to a recent tour of Persian Gulf Arab states and his first while in office. The trip may be of some personal significance for Maliki as well, since he himself took refuge in Iran during the Saddam era. According to an article published last Wednesday in Al-Hayat, Maliki stressed the importance of respecting Iraqi sovereignty and sealing the Iraq-Iran border. The article also quoted al-Abadi - a member of Maliki’s party - as saying that “Iraq is insistent in emphasizing to Iran that it will not wage war for any party, and that Iraq would not allow its territory to be the battleground between any regional or European country and Iran.” This seemed a way of saying that Iraq would not aid in any U.S.-led war on Iran, and that Iraq expected Iran to stay out of Iraq militarily as well.

Maliki also worked on effectuating agreements that the provinces of Basra, Amara and Najaf as well as the Kurdish regions had previously signed with the Iranian government for the provision of electricity. An article published in Al-Rafidayn emphasized that Maliki intended to press the Iranians on staying out of Iraqi affairs, and quoted a spokesman for the prime minister as saying that mediating between the U.S. and Iran was important because “we pay for the fruits of this situation in Iraq.”

The Sadrists also brought to the floor last week a vote to demand a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and obtained 104 votes for the measure (out of 275 total). They were joined by the same three Sunni factions which opposed the Shi’a federalism plan (this taken from the Al-Hayat article, “Maliki in Tehran to Execute Signed Agreements”). While Sunni factions, from the beginning opposed to the U.S. military presence, have become more willing to live with U.S. troops until they can protect themselves, they are still demanding some kind of timetable for withdrawal. The Sadrists demand an immediate withdrawal, but would not put such a motion up for vote as it would have been defeated by a much larger majority.

Some recent media reports have suggested that the Speaker of the Parliament Mahmud al-Mashadani, a Sunni Arab, might resign or perhaps be removed from his post for making positive statements about the Sunni Arab insurgent groups fighting the government. For now he has remained and there is no indication of his imminent departure. Last week Al-Rafidayn wrote a letter to Kurdish Provincial Leader Masud Barzani that the parliament would be discussing the Kurdish demand that the government change the Iraqi national flag “as soon as possible” so that it represents all the people of Iraq, recognizing “sincere feelings” expressed by various Iraqis on the issue. We dealt with this issue in our September 8 report, noting that the Kurdish leader ordered Iraqi flags lowered in Kurdish-administered areas to protest the fact that the flag of democratic Iraq still resembled the Baathist flag created by Saddam Hussein in 1991.


An Iraqi federated state was always in the works. Kurdistan in the north, Sunniville in the middle and Shiatown in the south. The question is to what degree will each state have autonomy. The Kurds want their own state and that will set their agenda. Shiatown will come under the sphere of influence of Iran and that will set their agenda and Sunniville is the question----will they have a capital without meaning?!


I'm not sure I would put it that way. Certainly the Kurds want their own state, and they are opposed by everyone on that, so they settle for autonomy. The extent to which Iran sets the agenda will depend in large part upon whether or not the state consolidates before Sistani's death. If it does, then Iran's influence will be less. Although SCIRI and the Sadriya have ties to Iran, they hate each other, and SCIRI has towed Sistani's line for the past couple of years, so that is a good sign. But even Shia Iraqis are nationalistic, so I think Iranian influence will be a lot less than you are suggesting once things are stablized. As for the Sunnis, Baghdad will be its own region. The Sunnis will likely hold out their approval of the final plan in exchange for some revenue sharing agreement and limitations on any armed organizations they are allowed to maintain.