[Translator’s Introduction: The article below by Fawwaz Traboulsi first appeared in Arabic in the Beirut weekly Mulhaq al-Nahar al-Thaqafi (the Literary Supplement of the daily al-Nahar) of November 6, 2005. The article has not previously been translated into English, and it is offered here for its continuing relevance to Iraqi political developments.
The article was originally written as, part of a series of pieces by different commentators on "the consequences of Iraqi federalism on the Arab world," just a few weeks after the October 15 referendum approving a new Iraqi constitution — or, more precisely, an incomplete version of it.
The struggle for Iraq’s constitution is still very much ongoing, as I explain in a separate article
One of Traboulsi’s warning calls to Iraqis is about the sectarian character of the draft constitution. Traboulsi’s criticism draws additional force as he writes from the vantage point of a historian of the modern Middle East, who has also been a direct witness to the ravages repeatedly brought about by a sectarian-based system of government (so-called confessionalism) for nearly a century in nearby Lebanon.
— Assaf Kfoury]
Before we discuss the potential effects of establishing an Iraqi federation on the rest of the Arab world, we ought to give an examination of federalism in Iraq, in and of itself, its due. We ought to do this even though a detailed assessment of the proposed draft for an Iraqi constitution cannot be guaranteed as final yet, especially since the draft remains a working document that has been repeatedly adjusted and modified. If we are to examine the idea of federalism in Iraq and potential problems in putting it into practice, a good place to start from is the draft itself where a specific form of an Iraqi federation is proposed to the Iraqi people.
Any discussion of federalism in Iraq must take note of two important characteristics of the current situation. The first characteristic is that the American occupation accomplished more than just regime change. Not only did the occupation put an end to the Baath regime led by Saddam Hussein, it completely demolished the Iraqi state, eliminating the former state infrastructure and somehow aiming to rebuild it entirely from scratch: the legislative and judicial institutions, the army, the ministries, the civil service and all public administrations. And not only did it demolish the former state and its institutions which it directly targeted, it inevitably had a profound dislocating effect on the whole of Iraqi society. What concerns us here most are the changes and reversals which Iraq’s three main communities have experienced in their mutual relations as a result. At the moment, Iraqis are facing a crucial turning point in their collective history: On the one hand, a majority of Iraqis reject a return to a centralized authoritarian government, whose remnants are no longer in a position to unite Iraqi society in any case, coercively or not. On the other hand, we are now witnessing an intense movement among the constituent parts of Iraqi society, whose outcome is yet to be determined — in the form of new elements of domination or control or balance or leadership. The most salient features of this ongoing movement are:
· The two communities that suffered most from discrimination and deprivation under the Baath regime, namely the Shiites and the Kurds, are now exercising a new assertiveness, but in different ways that are often at cross-purposes. As most often reflected in pronouncements by Shiite leaders, the Shiite community is striving to impose the principle of majority rule on a political system still-in-the-making. By contrast, as indicated by its leaders’ stated positions, the Kurdish community is trying to maximize the benefits of its self-autonomy and simultaneously preserve its position in the central government, against the background of a Kurdish public opinion strongly favoring secession — an issue I shall return to shortly.
· The Sunni community is struggling to find a new place in the emerging order. It is doing so after long years during which Saddam Hussein monopolized power in its name and at the expense of its own majority. This search for a new place manifests itself in different ways. Some Sunni groups that espouse various nationalist ideologies are engaged in an armed insurgency with the declared aim of re-establishing a centralized Iraqi state, of one form or another, in which they will regain their privileges. Other Sunni groups, which have shunned the violence of the armed insurgency but also used it as a bargaining chip, are vying for a better position within the emerging political system. And lest we forget — and how can we forget!! — this armed insurgency has intermittently tolerated or abetted the kind of violence embraced by al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia that indiscriminately targets civilians and openly proclaims that Shiites are apostates deserving death.
· Last but not least, the various social movements and forces, including the labor movement and the women’s movement, are all struggling to find a position and a role to play in the political system still-in-the-making. They are doing so in the face of a political system that is increasingly giving precedence to communal rights over individual rights, and increasingly sacrificing socio-economic interests to appease religious-regional demands.
In making the preceding points, we cannot stress enough the importance of the current juncture in Iraq’s history — this is a time when Iraq’s state institutions are being rebuilt, its entire society remodeled, and the very basis of its existence as a single entity reconsidered.
So, how is it that we hope for Iraq to change from a centralized state to a federation? There is no point in saying that states in their historical development tend to go from loose federations or confederations to centralized states. In the case of Iraq, it may well be that the reverse will take place, and that this reverse may turn out to be the best way to re-unite its society by rebuilding its state and public institutions differently. Re-uniting Iraqi society is not the same thing as re-establishing a unitary centralized state; rather, if Iraqi society is to re-unite voluntarily, it will likely be the product of a form of government that devolves authority, permits all components of society to exercise their rights for self-rule, and distributes equitably national resources and public services.
The second important characteristic of the current situation in Iraq, insofar as the issue of federalism is concerned, is the growing current among Kurds for an outright secession, something I already alluded to before. An overwhelming majority of the Kurds once more expressed this sentiment in a poll conducted on the margin of the most recent parliamentary elections. Did the secessionist sentiment among Kurds predate the American invasion? And were the Kurds able to express this sentiment openly only after this invasion? Or was this secessionist sentiment the product of specific events and history? A number of factors have in fact contributed to this Kurdish shift, over many years, from a demand for self-rule in Kurdistan within a democratic Iraq to a call for outright secession.
Most of the available evidence indicates that the Kurdish population’s shift towards secession started during the latter period of the Baath regime, and most significantly, since the so-called Anfal campaign of 1988-89. During that campaign, the Kurdish regions were subjected to wholesale massacres, ethnic cleansing, destruction of hundreds of villages, forced Arabization, and forced migration of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants. In other words, the movement favoring Kurdish secession grew in reaction to the extreme national-chauvinist and tyrannical policies pursued by the central government in dealing with the Kurdish question.
It is worth adding that the Kurdish movement towards secession was further nurtured during the years of self-rule in the 1990’s and later, when the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq were outside Baghdad’s control and largely isolated from the southern Arab-majority regions that remained under Baath rule.
Of course, the existence of a dominant separatist current among Kurds today does not mean, a priori, that it may not recede as a result of future circumstances, nor does it mean that Kurdish secession is bound to happen regardless of circumstances. Several internal and external factors militate against an outright secession. In particular, most of the Kurdish leaders and parties continue to search for a solution within the boundaries of a single Iraqi entity, while outright secession under current conditions would undermine the Kurdish regions’ economic interests and external relations.
As I am talking about secession, I should point out that I fully support the Kurdish people’s right to national self-determination, including its right to secede completely and form a separate state. But my support of this right is not neutral, and I find no contradiction in being partial to another alternative: As an Arab citizen, I am also in favor of Iraq’s Kurds ultimately choosing to remain within the Arab world, as an affirmation that this Arab world can be open to ethnic, regional and religious communities — in all their diversities and multiplicities — in a context of coexistence and cooperation that are enriching to all.
Based on the preceding, I understand the proposal for a federal Iraq to be for a system of government that will grant the Kurdish minority all its legitimate rights: to exercise self-rule, use its own language, preserve and develop its cultural heritage, and receive its fair share of the national wealth and budget — in the context of a united Iraq, as an alternative to the option of an outright secession.
That said, this vision of an Arab-Kurdish federation in Iraq is problematic and fraught with difficulties. While it provides an answer to part of the problem, it raises other problems. Any federal system, whether in Iraq or anywhere else, is erected on the presumed existence of two or more autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. In Iraq’s present situation, there exists only one autonomous region in the Kurdish north, consisting of three provinces, where self-rule is already exercised through the creation of a regional government, a regional parliament, a regional administration and regional armed forces. In the face of this one autonomous region are: (1) a central government reflecting a twisted power-sharing formula* between a (Kurdish) ethnic community and (Arab) religious communities, and (2) a collection of 15 provinces in the rest of the country with an overwhelming Arab majority.
The question is: This proposed Iraqi federation is to be realized between whom and whom? An answer of sorts is in the draft constitution, which stipulates that any province (or group of provinces) can move to become a separate federal region, i.e. one of the units of the projected federation, provided the move to separate is approved by a majority of that region’s eligible voters in a plebiscite. In the envisioned federal system according to the draft constitution, power and representation will be divided between four different levels: (1) the capital Baghdad and surrounding metropolitan area, with its own special executive and administrative organization; (2) the regions, each consisting of one or more provinces that elect to form a self-ruling federal unit; (3) the provinces, jointly administered by the federal and provincial authorities; and (4) what the draft calls "the local administrations," responsible for the affairs of religious minorities (Christians, Yazedis, Mandi Sabeans) and small ethnic minorities (Turkmen, Armenians). It does not take much imagination to foresee a situation of confusion and conflict when this projected system will be put to the test of practice, notably because the population of Baghdad and the surrounding area, representing more than one-fifth of Iraq’s total, is a mix of all ethnic and religious communities.
The only plausible explanation for the adoption of this problematic system is that the commission responsible for the draft constitution refused to consider a single defining criterion for a federation, namely, an ethnic division between Arabs and Kurds. This is unfortunate, because the only meaningful and effective federation, one capable of embracing all the religious and sectarian diversities of Iraqi society, is an Arab-Kurdish federation consisting of two autonomous regions: one including all the provinces with a Kurdish majority, and one including all the provinces with an Arab majority. In this way, power and representation would be divided between two rather than four levels — with the first of these two levels already mentioned in the draft constitution: (1) a national assembly of all the delegates elected by the entire Iraqi population, with one delegate for every 100,000 voters, and this assembly in turn elects a head of state and a council of ministers; (2) the regional institutions in each of the two autonomous regions. (To my knowledge, during the discussions on the draft constitution, there was a similar proposal that was not followed up, of a federation between two regions, one called Kurdistan and one called Mesopotamia.)
Such a federal solution leads us directly to the question of Iraq’s identity. Is it an Arab country? Is it part of the Arab world?
There is no question that the American view of Iraq has been to divide Iraqi society into one ethnic community (the Kurds) and two Islamic sects (Sunnis and Shiites). The effect has been to diminish the role of Iraq’s Arab population as its single ethnic majority. This has been the view underlying US policy since the 1990-91 Gulf War: the determination of the no-fly zones after 1991, the parceling out and distribution of food supplies during the UN food-for-oil program, the representation of the Iraqi regime as a Sunni regime, etc. This has been the view from our opponent’s side — the side of the imperial power and the interests it serves.
But from our side — the side of those who support Iraq’s liberation — the crucial question is: What do we want? Do we adopt our opponent’s view or do we confront it with an alternative view? An alternative view that expresses the Iraqi people’s free will?
My sense is that much of the debate about Iraq’s Arab identity is taking place in a context of symbols and images that ignore the facts. Some have criticized one of the clauses in the draft constitution that states that Iraq’s "Arab citizens are a part of the Arab nation;" without any mention that Iraq is an Arab country or part of the Arab world, they read the draft as stripping Iraq the country of its Arab identity. There is some validity in this criticism, but there is a far more important omission in the draft constitution: It does not deal with Iraq’s Arab inhabitants as one ethnicity and only identifies them according to their sectarian identities. Indeed, what is the gain in trying to amend the draft constitution to include some sort of clause proclaiming that Iraq is part of the Arab world — just to please the Secretary General of the Arab League — if the draft does not also recognize Iraq’s Arabs as a single ethnic community and strips them of any constitutional role as such in the Iraqi political system?
One final remark is in order regarding the distribution of revenues from the oil and gas sector. This is a particularly sensitive issue in an Iraqi federal system, which must be considered against the current and past record inasmuch as it has all too often been an element of discord and division. First, we should give the draft constitution its due for explicitly stating that oil and gas resources are a common property of the entire Iraqi people, and that their revenues will be distributed proportionally to population size in every region. The draft constitution also allocates a special share to parts of the country that were deprived of the revenues under the former Baath regime. So far, this is in relation to ownership and distribution of revenues only. As for the administration of oil and gas production, the draft calls for it to be joint between federal and regional authorities, but limited to currently exploited fields. The draft leaves unspecified the administration of fields that are discovered in the future, allowing the possibility that these will be placed under sole control of the regional authorities. This is an unfortunate ambiguity, a portent of potentially divisive conflicts, especially since Iraq’s oil reserves are estimated to far exceed its current production level.
An example of these potentially divisive problems is the current struggle over the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Kurdish claim to Kirkuk, the conflict regarding its ethnic makeup, and the debate on whether or not it should be part of the Kurdish autonomous region, become all the more critical precisely because of the city’s importance in the oil industry. Unilateral insistence by any side on controlling Kirkuk undermines Iraqi federalism and, moreover, will embolden those who want to establish a separate region in southern Iraq to demand similar ownership rights on the southern oil fields. Regardless of the final status and geographical location of Kirkuk, inside or outside the autonomous Kurdish region, it is important that its oil wealth remains under federal control and administration, representing its joint ownership by the entire Iraqi people.
* Translator’s note: The power-sharing formula is "skewed" in that it is not a partnership between only ethnic communities, or between only religious communities, but between one ethnic community and two religious communities, with the latter two limited to Arabs. Kurds are religiously diverse, just like the Arabs. There are significant numbers of both Sunnis and Shiites (and other religious denominations) not only among Arabs, but also among Kurds and other smaller ethnic communities of Iraq (notably, Turkmen).
Fawwaz Traboulsi has taught at the Lebanese American University, Beirut-Lebanon. He has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. His most recent book in English is A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007). The translator, Assaf Kfoury, is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University.