Residents of Basra show the regional flag that has been circulating on social media websites. Photo: Facebook
As Iraq continues to descend into chaos, a weeks-old social media campaign has attracted support from Iraqis around the world, calling for the southern oil province of Basra to be turned into an autonomous enclave, similar to the Kurdistan Region in the north.
The sentiment of the online "I am for Basra Region" resonates with the provincial residents, prompting some politicians to launch a signature collection campaign in support of a referendum for the province regarded as Iraq's financial capital.
"It is done mainly as some kind of revenge towards what the government in Baghdad is doing,” said Dr. Abbas Kadhim, a senior fellow at the John Hopkins University (SAIS) in the United States.
“Basra, that feeds Iraq, does not have any kind of representation in Baghdad to speak of -- and it has not had for a long time,” said Kadhim, adding that if the move for a Basra autonomous region succeeds, “that is going to be a change in the rule of the game."
Kadhim also mentioned another larger movement that is calling for Iraq’s Shiite areas to be separated from the rest of the war-ravaged country.
The thrust behind the move to turn Basra into an autonomous region has recently been best articulated by the former governor and minister, Wael Abdul Latif. He restarted a signature campaign aiming at a vote. A similar 2009 effort by Latif did not materialize, after he failed to collect enough signatures to legally force the Iraqi election commission to hold a vote.
Following a deal between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad over financial matters and Kurdish oil exports earlier this month, the Basra provincial council has demanded a greater say in national energy and wealth matters.
It requested the formation of a “Basra Oil Body” -- similar to the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources – which would negotiate management of the province’s oil wealth with Baghdad.
Basra, which feeds more than 90 percent of the Iraqi budget through its oil, has long complained about lack of transparency in oil revenues. Provincial officials also complain that Baghdad is unresponsive to complaints over lack of basic services, and that it is replete with red tape and corruption.
Kadhim warns that the demands from Basra are symptomatic of a bigger threat: a lack of commitment by the Shiites to Iraq’s territorial integrity.
“People are not committed anymore because of bloodshed, because of the fact people are not (living) in the way they should be. The south and the center are in ruins right now," he said.
Hundreds of people – by some estimates thousands -- in Basra and elsewhere have posted pictures with the unofficial provincial flag of a Basra Region.
There have been several other failed attempts to turn Basra into an autonomous region: in 2005 and 2009, locals refused to sign up for a signature campaign for a referendum on Basra’s future. Legally, 10 percent of the population in the province must sign up for the electoral commissioner to allow a referendum.
Iraq’s electoral body is technically and logistically ready to hold a referendum when the demand is sent by the province, Katee al- Zobaie, deputy chairman of the Board of Commissars, told Shafaq News.
In addition to a genuine desire for greater control of power and wealth in Basra, some experts believe the issue is also used by Baghdad as a trump card in negotiations with the Kurdistan Region. They say Baghdad tries to use Basra’s demand for autonomy as justification to politely reject Kurdish demands for greater economic and political power.
On many occasions, central government officials in Baghdad have repeatedly said that giving more power to the Kurds would trigger a snowball effect in Basra and other provinces.
"I think the Basra card is used somehow as a leverage card when it comes to negotiations with the KRG,” said Bilal Wahab, a lecturer at the American University-Iraq in Sulaimani, who is currently in Washington DC.
“If you look at the past several years, this has come up during the time when Baghdad and KRG have been in negotiations," he noted. "This is not to say, of course, that there is no substance to Basra's desire for a larger share of autonomy or petrodollars.”
Harith al-Qarawee, another Iraq expert and fellow at Harvard University, concurs with Wahab’s view.
"But I think the Iraqi government does not feel threatened by what Basra says and wants to turn itself into a region,” he said. “It feels threatened when it becomes a reality," he added.