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A Federation for Iraq

by Gordon M. Hahn

[Still perhaps of some relevance today given continuing jihadi, Iranian jihadi, and Kurdish threats Iraq’s (and Syria’s) territorial integrity, the following was published by me at Radio Free Liberty Radio Liberty, Gordon M. Hahn, “A Federation for Iraq,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, Vol. 7, No. 88, 12 May 2003, http://www.rferl.org

A Federation for Iraq

Before and during the brief U.S.-led military campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal Ba’athist regime a great deal of attention was paid to Iraq’s ethnic and religious complexities. Since then, much of the discussion on how to engage nation building has focused on economic issues and the dangers of Iraqi opposition to the U.S. presence. To be sure, these are important issues, but the most important issue will be fashioning a viable federal system that balances the interests of Iraq’s regions and nationalities. This is especially so since one group, the Sunni minority of central Iraq, formed the power base of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, which with a heavy hand oppressed both the Shi’ite community in southern Iraq that makes up 60 percent of Iraq’s population and the independence-minded Kurdish minority that dominates northern Iraq. Turkoman and Armenian minorities further complicate the picture in the north.

While one can question the particulars, the effort to create a multi-communal council for the northern city of Mosul is a good first step. However, the walkout by some groups to protest the ethnic basis upon which the council’s membership was organized shows just how sensitive, even explosive, these issues can be. In this light, the international community, foremost the United States, needs to focus intensively on federation building in Iraq in a way that strikes a balance between different minority interests and the interest of all in maintaining an integral Iraqi state. The breakup of states as a result of one or more of its communities’ drive for self-determination through secession is often accompanied by violence.

There are several institutions and mechanisms that can be implemented over the mid- to long term to build an Iraqi federation acceptable to Shi’a, Sunnis, and Kurds alike. First and most obviously, the country needs to be subdivided into at least three autonomous provinces for the Shi’a, Sunnis, and Kurds, respectively. Each should have considerable authority for local self-rule over economic and cultural policies.

Each province should have control over the majority of the natural resources on its territory or tax revenues from the profits generated by their exploitation. A minority portion of the same should go to federal coffers. At least part of the federal share from oil profits should go into a special fund like that which exists in the U.S. state of Alaska that would deliver annual checks to each family in Iraq. Also, perhaps, ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities could be given extraterritorial control over language, cultural, and religious education. Shi’a, for example, could be given some tax revenues or taxation powers to create their own governing bodies to administer policies in these issue areas anywhere in Iraq where communities of Shi’a are concentrated.

Not only should the federal Iraqi government have a limited role in provincial governance, but the autonomous provinces should have an important role in federal lawmaking. The typical mechanism for consensual decision-making in the central governments of federative systems is an upper house of the federal parliament that gives equal representation to each region. This, however, is not feasible in Iraq given the small number of sub-federal constituent parts. Therefore, the upper house could be composed of an equal number of senators from each of the three national-territorial provinces, plus proportional representation for each of Iraq’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, including Arabs, Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Turkomans, Shebak, Yezidi, and Armenians.

The executive branch, specifically government ministerial posts or even a trilateral or rotating presidency like that in Bosnia-Herzegovina, could be shared to foster joint decision-making. Alternatively, the autonomous provinces’ legislatures could be given veto powers over federal legislative bills.

In addition to these internally oriented institutions, which address communal aspirations for self-determination and ideally will obviate the impulse toward secession, externally oriented measures can assuage these communities’ desires for an independent role on the international stage. This is especially important in our globalizing age, when state sovereignty is already compromised and substate actors are increasingly integrated into regional and international cultural, economic, and even political organizations. Thus the autonomous provinces and entities on their territories could be given some leeway to conduct international trade and cultural programs without federal interference. Iraq’s own rapid integration into regional and global organizations will facilitate its provinces’ involvement in programs such as the European Union’s Euro-Regions program.

With these mechanisms in place, others should be implemented to counterbalance their tendency to reinforce communal divisions and, perhaps, to spark centrifugal, separatist tendencies. A democratic Iraqi national identity must evolve and individual aspirations must become part of Iraqis’ sense of dignity if more narrow communal identities are not to consume the new Iraq in internecine strife. Some or all of the above arrangements should be firmly institutionalized in federal-provincial power-sharing agreements democratically endorsed in popular referendums.

In order to establish and strengthen a new democratic Iraqi supranational identity, electoral practices that encourage cross-communal electoral coalitions and some cultural-assimilation policies are in order. Political parties could be required to seek a certain minimum number of members in each autonomous province in order to qualify to run candidates in federal elections or be required to garner a certain minimum number of votes in each province to take seats in the federal parliament’s lower house. The federal government must be given some competences in fiscal, economic, and education policies and have broad powers to enforce political and civil rights.

A multi-communal Iraq thus must become a “pluri-communal” Iraq. Institutional design will play a major role in any outcome. To be successful, Iraq and the international community must evenhandedly juggle supranational Iraqi interests and sub-federal regional and communal interests, as well as individual rights and freedoms.

Gordon M. Hahn is a lecturer at San Jose State University and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com; and an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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