Federalism is the new stick that is being used to beat Arab nationalism, writes Zaid Al-Ali
Almost a century ago, foreign powers waged war in the Middle East officially for the purpose of liberating the region from oppression. Although each of their local allies had been promised self determination, plans were being drawn up at exactly the same time to deny them this very right. The region was split into separate countries and minorities were granted favoured status over the majority.
The occupation of Iraq by the United States has reached a new and dangerous phase. A constitutional committee has been established and given the task of completing a draft constitution by 15 August, 2005. Most modern constitutions are written over a period of years, but Iraq has approximately two months to complete the task. The commission has been separated into six sub-committees, each of which is to deal with a separate issue, and one of the sub-committees has been given the task of dealing with the issue of what model of government the country should adopt, and more particularly, what type of federal model should be adopted. Although it is far from clear that a majority of Iraqis are in favour of a federal model of government, the choice has been imposed on them by the Kurdish minority and by the American occupiers. The way that this process is being carried out may determine whether Iraq is to remain a single country or not.
There is no agreement between the different parties that are involved in the constitutional process as to what they want to achieve. The Sunni community, which has recently been brought on board, has declared its complete and unanimous opposition to the idea that Iraq should become a federal state. This does not come as a surprise, as they have the most to lose from the process. On the other hand, the Shia community is split on the issue. The religious class has not declared its opposition to the concept per se , but it is clearly opposed to any solution that might lead to the breakup of the country. The most notable exception to this is Moqtada Al-Sadr, the defiant leader of the Mehdi army, who is opposed to Iraq becoming a federal state outright.
Meanwhile, many local leaders in the southern provinces, which have a Shia majority, have been pushing for a greater deal of autonomy for their regions, although it is unclear whether the local population is in favour of this outcome. In early May, 30 members of Iraq's national assembly set up a caucus for the purpose of demanding the establishment of a single federal state that would encompass the provinces of Basra, Nasseriya and Amara. Recently, a number of other provinces in the south, including Karbala, have been discussing the possibility of forming a federal state of their own. The southern regions are the least developed in the country, despite the fact that they are perhaps the wealthiest in terms of natural resources. This is a trend they hope to reverse through greater autonomy from the central government.
The Kurds are famously insistent that Iraq should become a federal state, and seek to impose this solution on the rest of the country. The solution that they are striving for provides not only that the Kurdish region maintain its current state of autonomy, but also that each separate region follow the same model of self government, regardless of whether or not these regions are in favour of so doing. When the current Iraqi government was sworn into office, the oath serving ministers were made to swear by omitted any reference to a “federal” Iraq. The Kurdish leadership angrily insisted that the entire ceremony be repeated and that the words “a federal Iraq” be inserted into the oath.
Kurdish politicians have been pushing this issue with the greatest amount of vigour, unsettling many Iraqis in the process, particularly due to the fate of the oil rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds would like to reclaim for Kurdistan, but which also has significant Arab and Turkoman minorities. The experiment in self-government in the north of the country has reached its limit in its current form. The recent publication of the Iraqi Living Conditions Survey by the United Nations in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Planning has revealed that parts of Iraqi Kurdistan are in fact some of the poorest areas in the country, despite all the years of self-governance. Many are convinced that oil-rich Kirkuk must be annexed to the Kurdish region if Kurdistan is to become economically viable.
Various means are being used to seize the city. These include legal means such as the transitional administrative law, which provides that a referendum should be held within the city in order to determine its future status, as well as violent means such as the kidnapping and torture of hundreds of people from Kirkuk's Arab and Turkoman communities. This type of activity has embittered what could and should have been an open and intellectual national debate about the merits of a federal system.
It is far from clear that a majority of Iraqis are in favour of a federal model of government. Kurdish politicians and a majority of the Kurdish population of Iraq favour maintaining their current degree of autonomy. However, there is no reason why the situation as it currently stands cannot continue. The constitution could provide that each region within the country can decide whether or not it wishes to be self-governed, without imposing the federal model of government on regions that are absolutely opposed to it. Another advantage of this approach is that it would allow for a true determination of whether each region of the country is comfortable with the idea of federalism.
However, considering the history of foreign involvement in Iraq and in the region, it would be naïve to assume that the invading armies that have decimated the country do not have an outcome they would prefer over others. It would be equally naïve to assume that the drive towards federalism is independent from Western hostility towards Arab nationalism.
The trend that has been spreading throughout the Middle East encourages individuals to place regional considerations above national issues, and to place individual concerns before anything else. The implications of this trend are that Palestine should be forgotten, and that Iraq's problems are merely Iraq's problems. The debate relating to federalism in Iraq is a microcosm of this phenomenon: the south should look out for itself, while the north should ignore the rest. It is because of this that there is so much opposition to federalism, regardless of what good it could bring to the region, and it also explains why there are so many that are in favour, despite the threat of splitting the country even further into separate regions. Arab nationalism has been on the losing side of a number of battles for decades, and it is being sized up for another defeat.