Opinion and Editorial

The failed Gulf state called Basra and Iraq constitution

Reidar Visser
Filed on October 11, 2005

IN the 1920s, when the modern state of Iraq had just been established, a group of notables in Basra made a bid to establish the Gulf city as a separate merchant republic. They envisaged a pro-British enclave that could become an emporium for the Gulf region.

Their second-best option was federation with Baghdad. In the end, all failed and Iraqi nationalism triumphed, sealing the fate of the Gulf city for the rest of the century. Today, localist movements are once more active in Basra. Although the goals may be different, much of the political thinking bears a striking resemblance to that of the Basra notables in the 1920s.

The maxim of those early separatists was that Basra should not suffer by becoming embroiled in the unpredictable Baghdad politics. To them commerce was more important than politics, and they feared that distant demagogues would exploit their wealth for grandiose nationalist projects. Substitute "oil" for trade, add the suffering of the south during the wars with Iran and Kuwait, and a clear picture emerges of bleak prophecies that have come true.

What would the separatists have made of the new Iraqi constitution?

No doubt, they would have preferred it to the British-sponsored unitary state model of the 1920s. Its provisions for regional control of oil and security would have pleased them. Its protection of regional rights from constitutional amendment would have allayed their fears of a dominant Baghdad.

But freedom from Baghdad was not the separatists' sole concern. They also cherished stability. And so they would have wondered: isn't the decentralisation almost overdone? With so many regional checks on the federal government, there is the unavoidable impression of the centre of politics in Iraq having been all but evacuated.

Then more caveats would have emerged. Just how are new federal entities to be established? By combining provinces into regions but without any ceilings on the number of provinces, and without unequivocal mechanisms for holding referenda. And those Basra notables (a multi-sect coalition not particularly concerned with religious issues) would have started asking tough questions. Who is to be amalgamated with whom? Will Basra join with its immediate neighbours, or get swallowed up into a larger Shia principality? Calling a referendum requires only the support of a tenth of the electorate in the "affected" provinces, so the prospect of competing federal schemes is very real. Najaf may want to unite with Basra, but Basra may have other preferences.

This is where the old Basra separatists meet with today's situation. For the past two years, local movements in Basra have tailored a scheme for a federal "region of the south". This is a non-sectarian project, involving only the three southernmost Iraqi provinces. Many envision it as a resurrection of Basra's Gulf identity, with the United Arab Emirates as a kind of model. This regionalism does not operate in tandem with the rest of Shia-dominated Iraq: in Basra, even Shia Islamists complain of being sidelined by the nationalist Shia parties, and many are sceptical about a single Shia canton as marketed by politicians from areas further north. Outside sponsorship, whether Western or Iranian, is not a priority either.

The new constitution is a challenge to the Basra regionalists. Two specific problems stand out: the lack of size limits for new federal entities, and, ironically, the heavy bias towards securing regional rights so intense that the overall stability of the new political system is threatened. Non-sectarian regionalist projects may face hard challenges from large-scale sectarian competitors, and the multi-cultural hub of Baghdad may become divested of real power. The result may be unbridgeable fissures in the Iraqi polity along sectarian faultlines, instead of controlled small-scale devolution.

After much soul-searching, the Basra separatists of the 1920s might well have voted "yes" to the new Iraqi constitution. Their goal, after all, was an orderly, if not overly intimate, relationship with Baghdad, and they would have preferred dialogue to armed hostilities. But they would have stayed alert. To prevent Basra from once more becoming reduced to the playground of outside forces they would have jealously guarded the post-referendum proceedings for creating new regions.

In negotiations over the blank spaces in the constitution they would have appealed to other Iraqis with similar views of stability as being more important than ideology. In that spirit, they would have worked to create a new Iraq based on a middle course: between the excessive centralism of the old regime and the boundless sectarian fragmentation latent in today's proposed constitution.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the author of the book Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2005).

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