December 27, up to 3,000 people marched in the city of Basra in support of a federal region for the province. Parliamentarian and former governor of Basra Wail Abd al-Latif has proposed the idea. In November 2008 he turned in an initial petition with enough signatures for the Iraqi Election Commission to move forward on the plan. Latif and his followers now have to get 10% of the province’s voting population, approximately 140,939 people, to sign a second petition. That effort started on December 14, and they have until January 14 to finish. If they accomplish that there has to be an election within 15 days. The initiative will pass with 51% of the vote. A Basra federal region has been on the mind of Latif and others for quite some time, but will face opposition from many powerful parties.
Latif has been pushing the idea of a separate Basra region for several years now. In 2005 he first presented the plan as an amendment to the constitution. At the heart of the proposal is the deep-seated conviction amongst many Basrans that the central authorities and Baghdad have ignored them for generations. In turn, Latif has said that Basra needs a share of its vast oil wealth so that it can develop. This is a sizeable amount as the province has 60% of Iraq’s oil reserves, produces 1.8 million of Iraq’s 2.6 million barrels a day of crude, has the only major port through which the majority of the country’s petroleum exports pass through. He noted that the region would not be like Kurdistan however, and sign its own oil contracts, something he has been critical of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the past. Latif just wants Basra to receive a share of the oil profits.
The proposal has already gained a wide variety of supporters and detractors. The head of the Basra provincial council and the governor of the province were the first to publicly state they were for the idea. Their party, Fadhila, has had a similar plan for quite some time as well. In 2007 they said one dollar from each barrel of oil from Basra should go into a development fund for the province, while the governor twice called for a Basra federal region in 2008. They are already organizing social groups, and using their control of the provincial government to rally support. Several Shiite independents and tribes from the area are also pro-region. Finally, a parliamentarian from the Kurdish Alliance voiced support for the idea in November 2008 as well. Those opposed are the major Shiite and Sunni parties. First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been centralizing power around him in 2008. He would be against a lessoning of Baghdad’s power, especially over the majority of the country’s oil reserves. Oil Minister Hussein Sharhistani, who is running with Maliki’s Dawa party in the provincial elections, has repeatedly stated that all oil profits must go through the central government as well. He recently opposed the Kurds' call for a share of the oil profits. Moqtada al-Sadr also believes in authority being centralized in Baghdad, and one of his spokesmen in Najaf said the Basra idea would be bad for the country. There have even been discussions between Dawa and the Sadrists, two deep-seated foes, to work together in the province to block the proposal. The Iraqi Islamic Party is also against, reflecting the fears of many Sunnis that the Shiites and Kurds will control much of the country’s oil. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), although having little influence in Basra itself, has proposed a southern Shiite region before. A separate Basra area would hamper that idea. The Communist Party in Basra, and former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List are also in opposition.
Whether the Basra federal region goes up for a vote or not in January 2009 is a huge gamble for Latif and the Fadhila Party. It will happen just before the provincial elections on January 31. If the proposal passes both Latif and Fadhila will benefit. If it fails however, they will be going into the elections from a position of weakness. The Fadhila party is already widely unpopular for its lack of providing services and growth in Basra, and was a target of the government’s crackdown in March. The proposal also pits centralists like the Prime Minister against regionalists. Not only that, but local parties like Fadhila are against larger sectarian region backers such as the SIIC. The Oil Minister is also trying to fend off the Kurds' aspirations to control their oil, while building up the state’s capacity at a time when profits are dropping, and the country’s petroleum infrastructure is in dire need of repair. Having a Basra region with most of the oil reserves and the main pipeline and port could derail his plan. All of these factors have already pitted the major national parties against the local Basra ones. Intimidation, bribery, and the use of the security forces for political ends could all ensue to sway the process.
Abouzeid, Rania, “A New Twist in Iraq’s Shi’ite Power Struggle,” Time, 11/16/08
Agence France Presse, “Basra vote aims to benefit from Iraq oil wealth: planner,” 12/8/08
Alsumaria, “Basra heading towards independent region,” 11/17/08
- “Lights shed on federalism in Iraq Basra,” 11/13/08
Amara, Mostafa, “Kurds cannot collect oil royalties, says minister,” Azzaman, 12/22/08
Aswat al-Iraq, “Establishing Basra region easing off political congestion – MP,” 11/14/08
- “Sunni scholars, seculars object Basra federacy,” 11/15/08
Mohammed, Aref, “Thousands demand separate region for Iraq’s Basra,” Reuters, 12/27/08
Visser, Reidar, “The Basra Federalism Initiative Enters Stage Two,” Historiae.org, 12/15/08
Al-Wazzan, Saleem, “basra’s dominant parties expect to maintain power,” Niqash, 12/15/08