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IRAQ - Federalism.

The political scene in Iraq now is dominated by discussions on the concept of federalism. Those insisting on immediate application of federalism are the Kurdish parties in the north who recently merged into one government, the KRG. Also insisting on federalism is Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the biggest Shi'ite party - the Iran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Hakim has repeatedly said federalism was the only credible guarantee that Iraq will no longer fall under a dictatorship like Saddam's Ba'thist regime. But Hakim is not insisting on federalism being applied immediately, although he agrees with the KRG that it can now function under this system. The Sunni Arabs, who used to rule Iraq until March 2003, are strongly opposed to federalism - fearing this would lead to partition.

The anti-federalism camp is divided into two main blocs. The bloc of Sunnis and secular Iraqis is against the idea as a matter of principle, whereas the other bloc - made up mainly of Shi'ite parties - prefers to postpone the issue to another parliamentary term or more.

The issue came as a demand was made by a number of MPs from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the main Shi'ite bloc headed by Hakim, to enforce Article 118 of the constitution. This provides for devolution of powers to the provinces. The article states: "Six months after the first parliamentary meeting, a law has to be issued by the House [of Representatives], defining the executive measures concerning the make-up of provinces by a simple majority of attending members".

The constitution was endorsed by the dissolved National Assembly, through direct polling by the Iraqi people during the transitional government, then headed by Dr Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. However, some of its controversial articles were set aside to be reviewed by the House of Representatives which was elected on Dec. 15, 2005.

Among the controversial articles kept in abeyance were those related to federalism. There is Paragraph 142 - added to the constitution - where its first clause states: "The House of Representatives sets up a committee of its members, represented by the basic components of the Iraqi society, where its mission is to offer a report to the House within four months, including recommendations of the necessary amendments that can be carried out in the Constitution. The committee is to be dissolved after hearing its recommendations".

Para 142 set a time limit preceding the deadline defined in Article 118. Two recent developments prompted the UIA to make the petition. First, a US-backed proposal made by the UN to postpone the issue of federalism for a year, since it was argued that postponement will preserve the enthusiasm for Iraqi reconciliation. The second is Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa's call to set aside any issue which will further complicate matters in Iraq during this sensitive phase, especially when strenuous efforts are being made to patch the split in the political and social structure of the Iraqi people.

Federalism is one of the most advanced forms of governance and is used by many developed countries due to its positive results. It can be an umbrella for democratic activities and freedoms. It can serve as a security valve against individualism, usually encouraged by totalitarian and central regimes. However, it is not a panacea for all ills and may be applied in different forms and methods. In Switzerland and Belgium, federalism is founded on nationalism, where the different national cultures imposed different laws to suit their needs. In the US, federalism is based on decentralised administration and vast authorities for the states.

There are many details which must be studied carefully and discussed subjectively in a transparent atmosphere. Political congestions which have accumulated over time in Iraq, and heightened by the US occupation, must be set aside.

US experts have warned that federalism may not be a unifying route in Iraq if its scope is not fully understood. Its objectives must secure Iraq's future, discussed in a normal atmosphere. If federalism is applied in abnormal circumstances, such as those prevailing in Iraq today, it will be an element of division.

The UIA is a coalition of several Shi'ite parties, some of which oppose federalism intensely. The Muqtada al-Sadr movement, part of the UIA, is opposed to federalism; Sadr, a radical mullah, is also opposed to US occupation. He says federalism can be studied and discussed after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq. With 32 MP, the Sadrist movement also has an armed militia called Jaysh al-Mahdi which has been involved in the killing of many Sunni Arabs.

Those for federalism among Shi'ite groups, apart from Hakim's SCIRI which has more than the Sadrists' seats in parliament, include al-Fadhila Party with 15 MPs and with its own militia. SCIRI has the Badr Organisation, the largest among the Shi'ite militias. But Hakim has called for disbanding all the militias in Iraq.

The Sunnis and other parties in parliament - with a total of 119 of its 275 seats - believe that discussing federalism now will put an end to national reconciliation initiated by PM Nouri al-Maliki's government. They include the secular Iraqi List of former PM Iyad Allawi, the Sunni National Dialogue bloc and the Reconciliation and Freedom bloc. Their recent refusal to discuss Para 142 led to the postponement of the text's initial reading.

This reflected violent resistance to any idea which might pave the way towards a partitioning of Iraq. But the Kurds have already applied the federal system under a new constitution passed recently by their parliament. Objections to the KRG's moves are relatively less serious, however, because the Kurds have had autonomy since the early 1990s, when their area was protected by the US and UK air forces. Allegations that Israel was training the Kurdish Pesh Merga, the local armed forces, were this week denied by KRG leaders. Another hot issue is the oil-rich Kirkuk region, which the KRG is including in its territory. Experts have warned there could be war over Kirkuk.

Kirkuk, important because of the amount of oil in that northern region, has become a battleground between Iraqi Arabs - Shi'ites and Sunnis - and the Kurds who control Kirkuk's police and government. The deadliest attack, by an explosives-laden truck which blew up between the offices of two Kurdish political parties, last week killed at least 18 people and wounded 55 others.

Some Shi'ite leaders, including Hakim, want to create a "super region" in the oil-rich south, modelled on that of the KRG. Sunni Arabs fear that would break up the country and cut them off from its oil wealth, which is mostly in the north and south. Sunnis, though a minority in Iraq, were dominant under Saddam's dictatorship. They are now at the core of the insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government. Many Sunnis blame Shi'ite militias, notably including Jaysh al-Mahdi, for a terrible wave of killings which has left victims bound, tortured, shot and dumped in the streets of Baghdad every day.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Date:Sep 25, 2006
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