By Waheed Ghanim
Every summer the question of the oil-rich province’s independence from Baghdad is debated again. Despite growing popular support, it has never gone much further than talk.
Once again, the idea of turning the southern Iraqi province of Basra into a semi-autonomous region is gaining in popularity. The idea comes up almost every year, and often it’s suggested in summer, when Iraqis in the south are dealing with fiery temperatures and feeling the lack of state services, like power and drinking water, the most. In fact, the idea of freeing Basra from the yoke of the central government in Baghdad has been around for about 16 years.
Part of the reason for this is that Basra could be independently wealthy: It is one of the provinces producing the most oil in Iraq – an estimated 70 percent of Iraq’s oil comes from here – and has the only port in the country. Yet it also has very high levels of poverty, unemployment and, more recently, political unrest. Pro-region activists suggest that if the money generated in Basra did not have to go through the central government in Baghdad, then the province would be better off and many of its problems could be solved.
One of these, Ghazwan Katae, believes that locals in Basra are currently more inclined toward the idea of making the province a semi-autonomous region than ever, mostly thanks to recent political crises. Basra has been one of the epicentres for protests in southern Iraq that turned violent, causing national and international headlines.
At first, Katae says, he wasn’t sure if separating Basra from Iraq’s political centre was a good idea. “But now I have seen the response from so many different sectors,” he says. “I’ve met so many young people who are really excited about the idea.”
The suggestion should be seen positively, as a way to ensure Basra’s rights, not negatively, as a separation from Iraq, Katae told Al Menassa.
Activists like Katae often use events – sports, cultural and political – in Basra to make their point, and they do this over and over again. They have even erected signs at the entrance to the city that proudly proclaim visitors have arrived in the “Basra region”.
Earlier this year, after last summer’s turbulent popular protests, the Basra provincial council once again collected votes from two-thirds of its members and submitted their request for more independence to Baghdad, in yet another attempt to establish a region.
People in the region want justice, explains Ahmed Abdul-Hussein, a Basra council member. Basra has enormous assets yet the locals do not believe their province is allocated enough of the federal budget nor is enough attention paid to infrastructure projects and adequate services in Basra.
“The locals in this area are trying to get away from centralized government, which they find abhorrent,” Abdul-Hussein says. “It has brought unjustified interventions here while at the same time there has been no care given to a number of unresolved issues.”
But, Abdul-Hussein adds, the locals in Basra are also well aware that the politicians in Baghdad have absolutely no desire to go along with their plan, to turn the southern area into a semi-autonomous region that would function in a similar way to Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, like a country within a country.
There are several arguments against it in Baghdad, he notes. That includes the criticism that Basra is just trying to get out of paying its appropriate share of the federal budget and the fear that either political parties or local militia groups will take control of Basra. There is also concern that Basra will eventually try to secede from the country altogether, in the same way that the Iraqi Kurdish have wanted to.
Abdul-Hussein says that if senior ministers in Baghdad refuse to consider the request for more independence then Basra’s authorities should take the issue to the highest court, and accuse Iraqi politicians of not properly adhering to the law on this topic.
To establish a region, the Iraqi Constitution says certain steps must be taken – this involves either a tenth of all eligible voters in the province supporting the idea or one third of the provincial council members submitting the request. After this Iraq’s parliament votes on whether to go ahead.
Another council member, Ahmad al-Sality, believes that Baghdad will reject the proposal again. “We already know that they will,” he told Al Menassa.
And local political activist, Abbas al-Jurani, doesn’t hold out much hope for Basra’s independence either. Most of the political parties in power in Baghdad will reject the request, he suggests, because it conflicts with their own interests.
Anyway, such a move won’t solve longstanding Iraqi problems of corruption, al-Jurani said. Locals already think that corruption will simply move out of the central government and into local government, he concluded.