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August 12, 2005

Federalism in Iraq
Posted by Michael Signer

On the fast-breaking topic of Iraq's constitution, and whether the nation's ethnic regions ought to be incorporated in the new constitutional structure, more developments today. 

A long time ago, I posted here on Leslie Gelb's thoughtful and thought-provoking proposal for a  three-state Iraq, where Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni states/regions would be incorporated into a federalist system with a strong, but constrained, federal government (as in the U.S.)

In response, Greg Djerejian engaged in some good old-fashioned demagoguery, writing, "Oh, and can someone please inform Michael Signer that ethnic partitioning is not a "quintessentially American" value.  Thanks."

Well, jeez!  It's terrific to know that we can all engage in a considered discussion on the intricacies of constitution-making without being called bigots!  I'm very confident that with this level of thought, America will be able to support the fragile new constitution (and state) of Iraq. 

With friends like these, who needs...

This would be offensive if it weren't silly.  To allege some sort of liminal invidiousness  (or whatever Greg was talking about) in response to a calm suggestion of  a federalist solution is the sort of stuff for which the blogosphere is rightly maligned.

Let's take a step back.  First, keep in mind that this is a "nation" that was cobbled together from scraps of the Ottoman Empire.  And nations are generally defined as self-identified ethnic groups.  Whether or how people self-identify is extremely hard to judge, or push around, from the outside.  We've seen this throughout human history.  If Iraqis self-identify as three ethnic groups, it hardly falls to Americans to judge them for it.  Our interest lies in creating a stable, secure state -- ideally a democratic one. 

But in their neocon zeal to make Iraq a sort of Walden II for proto-Wilsonian fantasies of pure Americana, removed from the need to deal with annoyances and local complications (like the American left), the Bush Administration has been pushing one-size-fits-all solutions to Iraq. 

This doesn't make sense. 

Now, there are further developments along the lines of whether the Southern Shiite area of Iraq should be treated as a state in a federalist solution.  Belgravia Dispatch, are you gonna take the bait?  Huh?  Huh?

Here's the story, as reported by Juan Cole: 

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has made his move. Giving a speech in the holy city of Najaf, he demanded that the nine southern Shiite-majority provinces be allowed to form a regional confederation that would deal with the central government in Baghdad. This confederation would mirror the "Kurdistan" confederation of northern provinces already established. The southern confederation, which some call "Sumer," in honor of the ancient civilization of that region, would make a claim on some percentage of the petroleum revenue coming out of the Rumaila oil fields.

Al-Hakim has split on this issue with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who earlier, at least, is said to have opposed the plan. He has also split with his coalition partner, the Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, which prefers that the central government continue to deal with each of the 9 provinces separately.

Although Dawa got the prime ministership and so has a special interest in retaining the prerogatives fo the center, SCIRI won most of the provincial elections in the south, dominating their governing councils. Since SCIRI believes that it can continue to be dominant in the Shiite south, it is essentially making a claim on provincial resources and power, denying some portion of them to the central government. It cannot be good for the prospects of the approval of a permanent constitution to have a major split develop within the United Iraqi Alliance (which has a majority in parliament and groups Dawa and SCIRI) on this issue.

As Professor Cole is rightly noting, constitutional design rarely achieves perfection.  It's a product of balance and negotiation.  Federalism was a compromise for America in 1787, later re-balanced during the Civil War and afterward.  The same appears to make sense for Iraq.  Al-Hakim is hardly going to stop in his drive for a Shiite region; and what can America do to oppose him (even if it were the right thing to do?) 

In other words, the "three state" solution appears to be in the offing, whether it offends our sensibilities or not.  The right answer may be to accept the trending toward the regional/federalist solution, while doing what we did here in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and other places where constitutionalism has taken root:  build up a legal culture of independent and rule-based lawyers; make the federal government strong and secure; establish judicial review; build and enforce as many checks and balances as possible. 

The right answer is that whatever begets stability in this fractious country deserves our praise, and our support -- not our demagoguery.


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» Partitioning Iraq Is Still a Bad Idea from THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH
Michael Signer is accusing me of "demagoguery", though I'm not sure why really. If he means because I'm not ready to sign on to Les Gelb's plan to partition Iraq into three zones (Shia, Sunni and Kurd), well, OK guilty... [Read More]

» Partitioning Iraq Is Still a Bad Idea from THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH
Michael Signer is accusing me of "demagoguery", though I'm not sure why really. If he means because I'm not ready to sign on to Les Gelb's plan to partition Iraq into three zones (Shia, Sunni and Kurd), well, OK guilty... [Read More]


The problem I've had with the three-state idea (though I'm not going to lower myself to visit Greg D.'s site just to see if it was one of his objections) is that Iraq's population is mixed in many areas, especially in cities such as Mosul and Baghdad.

If there is a formal partition, there will be immense pressure on the minorities in each area to move to "their" state. Pressure that will likely translate into ethnic cleansing.

Think Confederation Helvetica, not three ethnic partitions German, French, Italian) or three religious partitions (Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical) but a dozen or so cantons. CH also has a militia-type military raised canton by canton but well regulated by the confederation, which has a Ministry of Defence, Civil Protection, and Sport.

CH is a reputable and stable republic, originally something of a model for the US.


…to some degree gelb’s contention that iraq would coalesce around n ethnic regions was presenscient, to a larger degree it was common sense: if this is not achieved through negotiation, it will be achieved by extended and costly violence, civil war.

the swiss constitution is a wonderful document highly worth emulating. yet it is worth noting that the confederation initially came together to oppose the hapsburgs – an outside force. that is not existent in iraq, or, perhaps more succinctly, doesn’t seem to be uppermost in the minds of the negotiating parties. if iran seemed more of a threat to them, perhaps common interests would prevail on the helvetica model. i tend to believe the interest all parties share at the moment is the disposition of the oil should the us leave.

... "If Iraqis self-identify as three ethnic groups, it hardly falls to Americans to judge them for it. Our interest lies in creating a stable, secure state -- ideally a democratic one. " ...

I don't think anyone is suggesting that the basis for the like division of Iraq into autonomous or semi-autonomous regions is entirely ethnic and national. The Iraqi Shiites are not an ethnic group, and certainly not a separate nation. They are predominantly Arabs, and the basis of their separate sense of identity is sectarian, not ethnic.

The Kurds do seem to comprise a separate nation, with a distinct ethnic, lingusitic and cultural identity. One problem for any future division, however, is that Iraqi "Kurdistan" includes large numbers of Turkmen - which is in fact the third largest ethnic group in Iraq.

I wrote:

..."One problem for any future division, however, is that Iraqi "Kurdistan" includes large numbers of Turkmen - which is in fact the third largest ethnic group in Iraq."...

And I should add that nothern Iraq also includes a large number of Arabs who relocated during Saddam's Arabization plan. Any plan for autonomy or strong federalism that is underwritten by the international community must attempt to institute guarantees against forced population transfers or the establishment of discriminatory categories of second class citizens, perhaps by tying aid for reconstruction and development to adherence to these established human rights standards.

There are three questions here:

First, the short-run difficulty isn't so much attitudes between groups as it is attitudes within each group. The Shia majority appears to be split down the middle over whether to have a strong region or a strong Iraqi central government. The Sunnis are opposed to regionalism, which would make them dependent on the other regions for oil money, but the Sunnis are also deeply apprehensive of a central state in which the Shias have a majority. The Kurds are the only group overwhelmingly in favor of a strong region, but in their case a strong region could invite foreign interference (from Turkey). The lack of consensus among the Shias in particular argues against injecting regional governments between the existing governorates and an elected central authority in the new constitution.

Second, the problem of federalism cannot be disentangled from the problem of civil-military relations. Regional autonomy would make it easier for the Shias and Sunnis to impose theocratic or neo-Baathist regimes in their particular areas with local militias keeping order, and under a unitary state a strong central army composed of all three groups might enforce a more secular and democratic constitution. But a strong central army could also threaten democracy in the country as a whole, as it has in the past. A compromise may be to create strong local police and paramilitary forces, which are the key anyway to bringing down the insurgency. A large conventional army isn't much use against insurgents who rely on hit-and-run tactics.

Third, constitutions should be sets of rules for orderly changes of government, for making ordinary law, and for making orderly changes to the rules themselves. There does need to be a consensus to agree to a constitution even in this limited sense, but the differences within each of the two Arab groups may make it easier to defer federalism until later.

JRBehrman: "CH is a reputable and stable republic, originally something of a model for the US."

The present 1848 Swiss Constitution was inspired by the American one, although Switzerland was certainly an inspiration to some eighteenth century thinkers. The existing governorates in Iraq have no tradition of territorial self-government as do Swiss cantons. Still, it might be worthwhile to explore the possibility of a system with stronger local government in Iraq. The manner in which the mayor of Baghdad was just removed is not a good sign, though.

I don't want to bring up the obvious, but since no one has, I will. What about the sectarian consociational system in Lebanon?

Just throwing it out there. Though a sectarian federal Iraq is a bit more complicated than just splitting it into willing provinces...

Those struggling with the Federalism question would do well to consider how Dayton handled the question of whether to divide Bosnia. Just as with Bosnia, the correct answer for Iraq right now is yes... and no.

Consider again what I wrote in "Lessons from the Mt. Igman Road" (

"the Dayton agreement's best endorsement takes the form of its near equal criticism from both sides on the question whether Bosnia should be divided or reintegrated. Idealists (and Bosniak sympathizers) believe the inter-entity boundary and the slow return of refugees reflects a failure of Dayton to live up to its own ideals. Realists (and Serb/Croat sympathizers) believe Dayton’s overly idealistic provisions of long term integration into a multi-ethnic state confuse and delay acceptance of new boundaries. In fact, Dayton achieved the balance and ambiguity needed to close the gap between unreconcileable deeply held divisions sewn in war. We Americans (and military thinkers particularly) tend to look for solutions to problems… preferably solutions with clarity and finality. Yet desires for solution, clarity, and finality are often the worst enemies of peace whereas process, ambiguity, and delay can be peace’s greatest friend."

If Rice and Khalilzad and their team understand this (not a given), they will push for language in the constitution that leaves much to the later implementation. Shorter declarations of principles work better than detailed divisions of Federal and provincial governance.

Iraq needs time and space to recover from Saddam's rule, war and insurgency. It would be best served by a constitution that allows some flexibility and differing interpretations as to the ultimate level of Federalism.

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