Protesters in Basra blocked streets with burning barricades earlier this month. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP
Under the Iraqi constitution the country's southern province of Basra has every right to seek autonomy from Baghdad and establish its own region.
It's presently requesting
this once again in light of the widespread protests that started there and spread throughout southern Iraq this month, railing against well over a decade of government neglect that has left the people of that oil-rich region haplessly impoverished.
While the Basra provincial council has suggested it will gradually relinquish this current request if Baghdad pays it billions of dollars, it nevertheless again raises the question of the actual ability of Iraqi provinces to acquire constitutional autonomy.
Article 119 of the Iraqi constitution unequivocally declares that, "One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum" put forward by either "one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region" or "a request by one-tenth of the voters in each of the governorates intending to form a region."
Basra could certainly hold a referendum that would likely pass and legally give it the right to greater autonomy that would grant local representatives more control over the province's finances and the stupendous amounts of oil and gas it produces.
While all of this is legally within its rights, Baghdad has a history of disregarding this constitutional article and exerting greater control from the center. Basra is a good example but not the only one.
The province of Saladin symbolically declared itself a semi-autonomous region back in October 2011, protesting what it called Baghdad's "domination over the provincial council authorities."
Baghdad has not granted Saladin autonomy despite this.
The only autonomous region in Iraq is, of course, the Kurdistan Region. After that region held its independence referendum in September 2017, Baghdad sought to strip
the Region of its autonomy.
Even after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi lifted the punitive flight ban on the region earlier this year and then campaigned
in Kurdistan for the Iraqi elections, the first Iraqi premier to do so, he was seemingly advocating for the end of the Region's autonomy. Kurds, who overwhelmingly voted for secession from Iraq in last September's regional independence referendum, of course gave him minuscule support.
That particular episode demonstrated both Abadi's disregard for any autonomous regions in Iraq as well as his lack of the most fundamental understanding of Kurds and Kurdistan, itself an apt demonstration of why Baghdad micro-managing the country's various provinces and populations will almost always prove problematic.
Pro-autonomous tendencies are not uncommon. Sunni provinces have sometimes mentioned the idea when they feel marginalized or unrepresented by the powers that be in Baghdad. Nineveh's former governor Atheel al-Nujaifi even once suggested that the province should be divided into several homogeneous mini-regions, with substantial levels of local authority for the various different ethnic and religious communities and minorities.
In 2016, when former Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim sought to make Kirkuk its own region – rather than immediately push for it become annexed into the Kurdistan Region, while simultaneously obtaining some autonomy, and breathing room, from Baghdad – he was staunchly opposed by all the major parties in Kurdistan.
He later recalled discussing the idea with Abadi, who said he saw the logic in the idea but couldn't publicly support such an initiative since it could encourage other provinces, Basra clearly at the forefront of his mind, to seek autonomy and lessen Baghdad's control over parts of the country.
"That's only on paper," Karim said of Article 119. "Anybody who tries to go that way, they [Baghdad] stop it."
Karim's infamous ousting by Baghdad last October 16, when Iraqi forces seized Kirkuk, a constitutionally disputed territory between it and Erbil, was merely the latest in a series of similar incidents that year. Baghdad dismissed and even imprisoned several different governors across the country it had disagreements with. It was also yet another conspicuous indication that Iraq never really had any intention to resolve the status of Kirkuk constitutionally under Article 140, which it flagrantly disregarded for over a decade.
Basra's present request for autonomy may similarly see more prolonged stalling from Baghdad. However, as this summer's protests have aptly demonstrated, an unrepresentative central government will eventually find it has less and less leeway to impose its will over areas where it is not welcome by the majority of locals.