Solving Iraq’s federal dilemma

Federalism ala Iraq does not exist anywhere else.
Friday 27/12/2019
Iraqi demonstrators gather at a gutted 18-storey building that has been occupied by protesters for two months, as demonstrations against the political system continues for the third consecutive month across Iraq on December 27, 2019. (AFP)
Iraqi demonstrators gather at a gutted 18-storey building that has been occupied by protesters for two months, as demonstrations against the political system continues for the third consecutive month across Iraq on December 27, 2019. (AFP)

The constitution of Iraq is federal. This is what was agreed upon by opposition leaders in the Saddam era and approved by the Governing Council in the Transitional Administration Law. It was adopted in the constitution by a referendum and it became a postulate in the post-change era.

However, there is an imbalance in this structure. The only other federal district in Iraq is that of the Kurdistan region. There were attempts to create other regions but they have all stalled and failed.

So why are we saying that the structure is imbalanced?

All Iraqis, including Iraqi citizens in the Kurdistan region, participate in national elections and have representatives in the Iraqi parliament. Naturally, the parliamentary blocs that represent them can participate in the federal government.

Ministers from Kurdish blocs, like their peers from outside that region, are involved in formulating and implementing policies that relate to health, education, security, water resources, agriculture, industry, transportation and so on throughout the whole of Iraq. However, their colleagues and counterparts from outside the Kurdistan region do not have the right to formulate and implement these same policies in the Kurdistan region because that is the privilege of the region’s government. And this is an unfair relation.

In order to rebalance this relationship and build a real federation (and not a confederation) that can withstand future changes and challenges, we must address this imbalance.

I did raise this problem inside the Governing Council and put forward a solution that addresses this imbalance, but unfortunately our Kurdish brothers rejected it and so did some others as a gesture of support.

Now, and after many years of experiencing this system, its flaws have come to light as we have experienced many difficulties related to its implementation. All parties now have become convinced that there is no other solution for Iraq but for all to coexist under the same umbrella but in fairness. We need to revisit the federal framework and restructure it for the medium and long-term future.

The solutions presented so far in the political arena, including the Biden project to divide Iraq into three federal regions, had a strong stench of sectarianism and had they been implemented, they would have resulted into armed conflicts that would have weakened the national fabric even further. So I stood firmly against Biden's project when I was stationed as ambassador in Washington, and I sent a statement to that effect to all members of the US Senate and House of Representatives. My statement and position were severely criticised by then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, but after long and difficult discussions, it was agreed to disagree and reluctantly accept the position I had taken.

The solution is very simple. We should keep the current Kurdistan Region, which consists of three provinces, and add to it whatever other areas that would result from implementing Article 140 of the Constitution in a manner satisfactory to all parties. The rest of Iraq shall belong to one single region that shall be appropriately named afterwards, but let’s call it for the moment the Baghdad Region.

This region shall include all the provinces of Iraq, except the Kurdistan Region of course, and shall have its own government that manages all of its affairs. In this case, the federal government shall have only the powers defined by the Constitution, including defence and foreign relations. All Iraqis shall have the equal right to participate in the federal government, but only the citizens of the Kurdistan Region and those of the Baghdad Region shall be eligible for positions in each region’s government respectively.

This solution has many advantages. It avoids the trap of sectarianism as there will be no disputes over the boundaries that separate a Shia region from a Sunni region. All faiths and factions will be sharing the same territory. This solution reduces the federal government to just the size determined by the constitution, having just the administrative apparatus and budget needed for its responsibilities. All other administrative structures and tasks shall be relegated to the government of Baghdad Region, as is currently the case in Kurdistan Region. In this case, the powers within the region can be redistributed between its government, provincial and municipal councils in a way that helps improve performance, reduce costs and reduce corruption.

This is the basic structure of the federal system in many countries, including the United States, India, Pakistan, China, Spain, Russia and Canada. Federalism ala Iraq does not exist anywhere else.

Iraq is one of the smallest federal states. It is practically the size of California, for example, but nobody in California is suggesting to divide that state into federal territories, such as a Northern California that is a predominantly Protestant English-speaking region and a Southern California that is predominantly Hispanic Catholic and Spanish-speaking region. Such folly does not occur to anyone in California.

In Iraq, however, we have gone through recent calamities, violent shocks and conflicts that have brought us to this situation. So, let us accept the principle of federalism but with as little fragmentation and division as possible, in a balanced and sustainable manner. This solution I put forward serves this purpose and deserves to be considered and implemented.

For this solution to work properly, certain conditions are necessary. The first is to reform the federal government and put the relationship between it and the regional government on a sound constitutional basis and then take care of the Iraqi citizens in Kurdistan, by providing care and protection and promoting the culture of citizenship among them. In doing so, their Iraqi identity will be rebuilt and consecrated to overcome any secessionist nationalistic tendencies.

On the other hand, all forms of chauvinism should be fought all across Iraq. We should promote the overall conviction that it is in everybody’s interests to accept and abide by the concepts of citizenship, pluralism, state-building and policymaking on this basis. When these concepts prevail, everybody will be reassured and the federal restructuring becomes closer to an administrative rationalisation than to a nationalistic competition.

But if this proposal is implemented in an atmosphere fraught with fears, confrontations and nationalistic mobilisation, it may lead to the opposite of its intended purpose and become a prelude to secession.

The benefits that can be realised from this solution are many. The most important one, in addition to the normalisation of the federal structure along international norms, will be reducing to the maximum the burden of the expense of the federal government and bringing the provincial government of Baghdad closer to its citizens, thus making it more democratic.

The reform mentioned above will complement other reforms to transform Iraq into a modern state, similar to other countries making their way to growth and catching up with humanity in this 21st century.