Federalism, Factionalism and Regional Differences in Iraq

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Iraq's 2005 Constitution defines the country as a federal republic[1] comprising of 18 governorates or 'provinces", three of which make up Iraq's only semi-autonomous region, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).[2] According to the US Institute of Peace, the Iraqi state established by the constitution falls short of best-practice federal models and the central government's foundation is "possibly the weakest of any federal model in the world."[3]

The constitution allows for the creation of semi-autonomous federal regions comprised of one or more of the administrative governorates in Iraq. To the extent that its powers do not conflict with federal authority, a region may have its own constitution and exercise legislative, executive and judicial authority over itself.[4] A province can become a "region" in one of two ways: either one third of the provincial council votes to hold a referendum on the issue or one-tenth of registered voters in the governorate ask for one. A referendum can then be held, in which federal status is established only if a majority of voters approves it.[5]

The only federal region existing as of late 2012 was the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However nearly half of Iraq's 18 provinces have either declared semi-autonomy or plan to do so.[6] The question of exactly what federal structure Iraq should pursue and how power should be shared between those who rule from Baghdad, the autonomous government in Erbil and the country's provincial leaders, remains unresolved.[7]

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has traditionally been opposed to greater independence for Iraq's regions, and vowed in a 2011 speech to block any efforts by the provinces to break away, asking "what's the reason for having a ruler in Baghdad?" and warning that “power-sharing cannot be the foundation of solving our problems."[8] According to a study for Al Jazeera, the requirement that governorates seeking to form a region must submit any request to Parliament for a vote has allowed the Prime Minister to block such applications by refusing to refer them to Parliament.[9]

Kurdistan semi-autonomous region

Iraqi Kurdistan is recognised as a federal region in the Iraqi Constitution and consists of three provinces, Dahuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. The Kurds have their own Parliament and President and command their own security forces.[10]

As far as hydrocarbons are concerned, under the KRG's interpretation of the Constitution (which states that such resources are “owned by the people of Iraq in all the regions and governates”), the regional government has the right to sign their own contracts for oil exploration and production. However Baghdad disagrees and considered such contracts as illegal.[11] Tensions between the central government and the northern region escalated following the entry of a series of oil majors such as ExxonMobil and Total into Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as ongoing disputes over arrangements for exports of hydrocarbons.

Main articles: KRG Contract Disputes and KRG Export Disputes

Southern provinces

Federalist tendencies have arisen in multiple provinces in Iraq's oil-rich south, including Maysan, Karbala, Najaf and Babel, but Basra has the south's most evident and persistent pro-federal tendency.[12]

The Basra region is home to Iraq's only sea port and, according to Niqash newspaper, to potentially 60 percent of the country's oil.[13] However just one percent of Basra's residents use the public water network (compared to 65 percent nationwide) because the desalinated water is undrinkable, according to a study by the United Nations.[14] According to a report by Al Jazeera, Basra seeks independence over what it sees as an unfair distribution of the province's energy revenues, with leaders particularly angry over a $17 billion deal with oil major Shell to develop three oilfields in southern Iraq, which they say the central government negotiated without their input.[15]

In August 2011, the Basra provincial council sent a demand to the Council of Ministers in Baghdad to activate the legal measures (that is, to set up a referendum) to transform Basra into a federal region. However as of late 2012 the request for a referendum remained with the Council of Ministers. Uday Awad, member of parliament from the Sadrist movement, advised the province to reconsider its demands to become an independent region and to settle for the 'Basra, Economic Capital of Iraq' project awaiting approval by parliament as of 2011, which would grant the province a greater share of crude oil revenues in addition to wider powers. [16]

Sunni federalism and Saladin

According to reports by the BBC, there was a general upswing in pro-federal sentiments in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq in late 2011, headlined by a visit to Britain by Parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi. Al Nujayfi said that Sunnis of Iraq feel they are being treated by the central government in Baghdad as second-class citizens, and if no improvement takes place many will feel compelled to call for the establishment of "geographically-based federal regions".[17]

The central-northern governorate of Saladin ("Salah ad Din") has been one of the leading Sunni territories with federalist movements in the post-2005 era. In October 2011, the Saladin governorate council declared its own federal status. [18] According to a report by the International Crisis Group Saladin's council emphasised that it wished to remain part of a "united Iraq".[19] However the province's move was met with stern opposition from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated government, who rejected the call, saying the formation of regions on a "sectarian basis" would lead to "dividing Iraq and to rivers of blood".[20]

As the form of the demand made by the Saladin governorate council was illegal (because it was not founded on the basis of a popular referendum) it failed to affect Saladin's status within Iraq. [21] In February 2012 Saladin officials submitted the signatures of two percent of the region's voters to the electoral commission as part of their request for autonomy.[22]

Other provinces


Following the moves by the Saladin governorate in 2011, other Sunni-majority provinces such as gas-rich Anbar also began to make claims for a more autonomous status if Baghdad did not respond to their demands.[23] The unemployment rate in Anbar province is twice that of Baghdad, adding to the sense among residents that they are receiving an unequal share of essential services and government jobs from Baghdad. A majority of the provincial council in Anbar supports a bid for autonomy, but as of December 2011 the issue had not yet come to a vote. Anbar's governor has said that Baghdad's neglect is pushing people towards autonomy.[24]


In December 2011 in the mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurd province of Diyala in the east of the country,[25] the provincial council announced that Diyala would become an autonomous region following a vote of 18 to 11 in favour. But the announcement was reversed within days pending further discussion, following protests outside the council building in provincial capital Baquba and threats to burn down the governor's house.[26] Autonomy would give Diyala more power over finances, administration and laws, as well as more control over public property in the region.[27]


  1. "Iraqi Constitution" UN Iraq Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  2. "Background Note: Iraq" US Department of State, 2 May 2011.
  3. "Weak Viability: The Iraqi Federal State and the Constitutional Amendment Process" United States Institute of Peace, July 2006.
  4. "Iraq Investment guide – second edition" Herbert Smith LLP, retrieved 13 December 2011.
  5. "The Empowerment of Governorates in Iraq" Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 12 July 2012.
  6. "The breakup: More Iraqis bid for autonomy" Al Jazeera, 22 December 2011.
  7. "Iraq's Federalism Quandary" International Crisis Group, 28 February 2012.
  8. "Iraq premier Nouri al-Maliki challenges restive provinces" Washington Post, 24 December 2011.
  9. "The Empowerment of Governorates in Iraq" Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 12 July 2012.
  10. "Clash Over Regional Power Spurs Iraq’s Sectarian Rift" New York Times, 23 December 2011.
  11. "An ocean of reserves waiting to be tapped" Financial Times, 9 December 2012.
  12. "Shahristani and Maliki in Federalism Crossfire" Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 6 September 2011.
  13. "escape from centralism: basra postpones bid for independence" Niqash, 1 February 2012.
  14. "The breakup: More Iraqis bid for autonomy" Al Jazeera, 22 December 2011.
  15. "The breakup: More Iraqis bid for autonomy" Al Jazeera, 22 December 2011.
  16. "Basra, Iraq's Economic Capital, Wants Southern Federal Region" Al Monitor 13 September 2012.
  17. "Nujayfi Uses the F Word Again", Gulf Analysis, 15 October 2011.
  18. "In Salahaddin, a Confused Federalism Bid" Iraq and Gulf Analysis 27 October 2011.
  19. "Iraq's Federalism Quandary" International Crisis Group, 28 February 2012.
  20. "Iraq PM chides Sunni sections pushing for autonomy" Yahoo News 24 December 2011.
  21. "Saladin is preparing for a referendum on the establishment of the Region" Investors in Iraq 7 December 2012.
  22. "Salahaddin hands autonomy signatures to electoral commission" AK News 26 February 2012.
  23. "Iraq's Federalism Quandary" International Crisis Group, 28 February 2012.
  24. "The breakup: More Iraqis bid for autonomy" Al Jazeera, 22 December 2011.
  25. "Iraq's Federalism Quandary" International Crisis Group, 28 February 2012.
  26. "The breakup: More Iraqis bid for autonomy" Al Jazeera, 22 December 2011.
  27. "Iraqi Shi'ite rally against autonomy push in Diyala", Reuters, 15 December 2011.