Iraqis in Basra call for federalism

Opponents of making Basra part of the federal system fear that some might later call for independence, as was the case in the Kurdistan region.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Cries of disillusionment. Protesters chant slogans in front of the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, February 1.  (AP)
Cries of disillusionment. Protesters chant slogans in front of the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, February 1. (AP)

BASRA, Iraq - Iraqis in Basra are calling for the southern province to be granted federal status, along the lines of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, because many have given up on the central government to improve living conditions.

Basra has been the site of demonstrations since June 2018 because of poor services and unemployment. Many were waiting for the new government or its recently announced 2019 budget to address their needs but they expressed disappointment on both counts.

This led senior figures in Basra to call for a “Basra federation.” It’s not the first time that Basrans have requested federalism. In 2008, provincial leaders lobbied then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to establish administrative federalism for Basra but the request was denied.

Today, local officials in Basra hope current Iraqi Prime Adel Abdul-Mahdi will be more sympathetic to their cause. The officials say if they’re allocated a large-enough portion of the national budget, they would do a better job than the central government in addressing the province’s needs.

“The governments in Baghdad had the opportunities to solve Basra’s problems since 2003 but they did nothing for the city. As a result, people in Basra quickly moved to revive pursuit for federal independence,” said Kareem al-Shawwak, a Basra provincial council member.

The head of the Basra provincial council, Sabah al-Bazoni, said Basra’s federalism was a matter of time.

“Today or tomorrow, Basra will be a federal region,” he said. “As Basra was neglected by the central government, we have no option other than going for federalism. The Basra provincial council members signed an official request for federalism. The people of Basra signed, too.”

Article 119 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that every province has the right to become a federal region either alone or together with other provinces, after following required procedures. A province can request being designated a federal entity after the approval of one-third of members of the governorate council and one-tenth of the area’s electorate.

“We will file a lawsuit at the Supreme Court against Baghdad government for not responding to the request of provincial council members,” Shawwak said.

Hassan Madhloom, a journalist in Basra who said he supported the idea of Basra becoming a federal region, pointed to Kurdistan as a model.

“Transforming Basra governorate into a federal region with a legal status similar to Kurdistan will guarantee Basra to get its financial rights,” he said. “Most of Basra’s problems can be solved by money.”

Opponents of making Basra part of the federal system said they feared that some might later call for independence, as was the case in the Kurdistan region.

Jaffar al-Mansour, a member of a pro-federalism group, said the aim of granting Basra region status was not to split it from the rest of Iraq. “There are no political goals in our considerations. What we want is to achieve administrative and economic goals for Basra away of Baghdad’s authority,” he said.

Legal expert Hani al-Basri agreed, saying: “If Basra becomes a federal region, Baghdad cannot take one barrel of oil without coordination with the Basra government.”

Participants at a meeting February 11, including the head of Basra provincial council, Basra University professors and NGO representatives, in cooperation with Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), discussed the federalism project.

Former German Minister of Justice Herta Daubler-Gmelin outlined advantages and disadvantages of the German federal system to offer lessons to Basra.

Tim O. Petschulat, resident director of FES Jordan/Iraq, said that although most of the Basra provincial council was in favour of elevating Basra to a federal region, residents of the city are divided on the idea.

“We talked with many citizens who told us that Iraq was not ready for it yet, that corruption and foreign influence might actually increase and not decrease if Basra became a region,” Petschulat said. “Some of them in favour of federalism, some of them against it.”

Basra resident Abu Mohammed said he feared that the current political parties would play a role in the running of a new Basra region.

Fadwa Touma, a female activist in Basra, said federalism for the province would not fix Basra’s problems. “What we have to do first is fight till we get rid of the corruption in the country,” she said.

Former Member of Parliament Wael Abdul Latif called for establishing a political party from Basra to champion the province’s federal status.

“The Basra federation has to be organised by political party from Basra, otherwise the project will be confiscated by other dominate political parties,” said Abdul Latif. “We are organsising conferences, seminars and meetings to raise awareness and gain support of the people of Basra. This will pressure on federal government and won’t allow it to neglect us, as it has done in the past.”