Iraq’s oil-rich southern province is pulling away from Baghdad's central government. And it's not alone.
- By Peter Schwartzsteinis a Cairo-based journalist. His work regularly appears in National Geographic, the Daily Beast, and Quartz, among others.
BASRA, Iraq — This port city in southern Iraq is not an easy place to love. Once the handsome backstop of the Persian Gulf, its famous canals are now choked with trash and reek of sewage in the brutal summer sun.
Its fine 19th-century mansions have given way to sagging low-rise apartment blocks, many of which lean menacingly over potholed roads. Even the Shatt al-Arab, the muddy waterway on whose back the city’s fortunes were built, has changed beyond all recognition. Ships sunk or scuttled over the course of recent wars obstruct the strait, while local fishing trawlers have mostly ditched their nets in favor of smuggling oil and various illicit goods from nearby Iran.
The fall from grace of Iraq’s second city is all the more startling due to the vital role it plays in the country’s economy. The central government derives around 97 percent of its revenue from oil, and roughly 90 percent of that oil is extracted from the massive fields that ring Basra’s dingy outer neighborhoods. As exports have boomed — recently hitting a new high of 3.145 million barrels per day — aggrieved residents feel their city ought to have reaped the rewards of the area’s natural riches.
“Iraq’s economy is Basra’s oil,” said Ali Abbasi, who owns a hardware store that is steps from the corniche that runs along the riverbank. “Is it reasonable that they take it all, but give us no electricity? They use our port, so why don’t they give us paved roads?”
For decades, Saddam Hussein’s cadre of Baathists kept a tight lid on any dissent in the predominantly Shiite south. They siphoned off the region’s resources while brutally suppressing periodic uprisings. But freed now from the shackles of dictatorship and fed up with recent governments’ inability to address their needs, some Basrawis are looking to distance themselves from Baghdad.
“The best easy way to break up this endless conflict is through regions,” said Ramadan al-Badran, a Californian-Iraqi businessman and one of three locals spearheading a campaign for federalism. “Baghdad’s shown it can’t deal with the power, so give it back to the people.”
Basra is just one of the many entities in Iraq keen to rework its relationship with Baghdad. The Kurds and some Sunni leaders in the country’s north are looking to win greater autonomy, while many Shiite militias also seem unlikely to willingly surrender their newfound independence. The United States too has flirted with supporting a less centralized Iraq: Congress considered a bill that would allow for Washington to arm Sunni and Kurdish fighters without funneling weapons through Baghdad, while Defense Secretary Ashton Carter publicly worried about a future where “a multisectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible.”
The Islamic State’s surge through northern and western Iraq has also galvanized Badran and his allies, who insist that Iraq as a unitary state administered from Baghdad is finished.
“Iraq is a dead end. So either we keep going down, or we push ahead with a federal model,” Badran said.
* * *
Those supporting Basra’s campaign offer a range of opinions as to how they imagine “regionhood” will improve their governorate.
Many point to the semiautonomous Kurdish region as an example of what they’d like to see in Basra. “In Kurdistan, it’s a good life. They decide what to get and how to spend it,” said Haidar al-Tamimi, who sells cotton candy to families strolling the unkempt grounds of one of Saddam’s former palaces. “Sure, there will still be corruption, but it will be right in front of us, so we can do something about it.”
Others wish only for an improvement in basic services, but after 12 years of chaos, they’ve concluded that the central government is simply too rotten to deliver on its promises.
“The [low] oil price has made everything worse, but ultimately all problems are coming from Baghdad. We should go out on our own,” said Ali Mohammed al-Shemeri. He pays $100 a month for 13 amps of power to operate his small street-side restaurant, but with the electricity off at least 18 hours a day and some of his produce perishing in the blistering late April heat, he’s reaching the end of his tether.
Above all, federalist Basrawis hope that a change in the political structure will cut red tape for businesses and provide more jobs for the growing echelon of unemployed young men — who, not coincidentally, form the backbone of the federalists’ support.
Iraq’s laws currently favor state-owned and Baghdad-based businesses, placing their Basra rivals at a disadvantage when it comes to bidding for lucrative government contracts. With local banks demanding interest rates of at least 14 percent, few small city firms can afford to take out loans, according to Sabeeh al-Hashemi, the president of the Basra branch of the Iraqi Businessmen’s Union.
“With the corruption, the lack of new business, I myself dream of going back 50 years,” he said. “Things were good then.”
As comments like that suggest, many older Basrawis appear to hold a slightly inflated historical estimation of their city’s standing. It also helps explain why, of all the fledgling nationwide campaigns calling for federalism, it’s Basra’s that has captured the imagination of many of its inhabitants.
Soon after the city’s fall to the British in 1914 after more than 400 years of Ottoman rule, merchants and local minorities mounted a push to disassociate themselves from the landlocked north. Their aim was “to establish the city and its immediate hinterland as a separate mercantile and cosmopolitan republic,” wrote Iraq analyst Reidar Visser in his book Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq.
Ultimately, Iraqi nationalists won out after what Visser calls “a masterful propaganda and nation-building effort.” But fueled by the discovery of nearby oil riches and fired by Baghdad’s continued neglect, the notion of a distinct Basra identity lives on.
“We, in Basra, should be the richest city in the Middle East. We look to Dubai and cry,” said Mohammed al-Tai, an independent MP, media tycoon, and another leading proponent of federalism “But, instead, we suffer from salty water [from the taps] and have debts. It’s a joke.”
* * *
Contemporary federalists must, if anything, contend with significantly more hazardous obstacles than their unsuccessful 1920s forebears. They face challenges from politicians in Baghdad and Shiite religious leaders — and even in organizing their own ranks.
The Iraqi Constitution states that a governorate can petition the High Electoral Committee to authorize a referendum if it can gather the support of 2 percent of the electorate or a third of the 27-strong local legislative council.
With most Basra politicians taking their cue from bosses in Baghdad, campaign leaders largely washed their hands of the mainstream parties and deployed teams of young activists from January to collect the necessary signatures — which in Basra’s case amounts to about a little over 30,000 of its 1.8 million eligible voters.
But then, with Baghdad beginning to awake to the looming danger, the loose coalition managing the campaign collapsed amid an undignified series of accusations and counterclaims. On April 15, Tai broke ranks with his compatriots, who say they were intent on waiting until they could command an absolute majority of the popular vote, and unilaterally submitted an application for a referendum.
“We had an agreement. No one would apply individually,” Badran said, his voice rising, when we met days after Tai’s submission. “We said we’d wait until we knew we had almost 1 million votes.”
Tai, however, claims his counterparts were merely treading water when the time was ripe to advance their cause. “They just stood on the hill watching,” he said. “It’s a battle between wrong and right. But some of them didn’t have the courage.”
What happened next depends on whom you believe. Baghdad swiftly dismissed Tai’s paperwork for what Tai says were strictly political reasons. But his erstwhile partner says Baghdad wasn’t being disingenuous when it cited various irregularities in his bid.
“They faked a lot of names to make up the total,” Badran said over coffee at Basra’s old Sheraton hotel, where U.N. agencies and the few remaining diplomatic missions base themselves. “There’s definitely a lot of support out there, but they fixed April 15th as the date to submit, realized they didn’t have enough before then, and so just cheated.”
More problematic, though, might be the influence of the Shiite religious establishment, which carries tremendous sway in the area.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite authority, has thus far opposed all initiatives that he fears might diminish Iraq. Local clerics, taking their cue from his silence, have been quick to publicly denounce the campaign as an interest-driven vanity project.
“Who are these people who want to create a province?” asked Sheikh Abu Samir al-Mayahi, who leads the Basra operations of the powerful Badr Organization. “It’s the businessmen who talk about a nice future, but they want to get a special chance for themselves.”
“Besides,” he added, “all money for Iraq comes from Basra. If we became a region, that would cut the support base for all of Iraq.”
Neither Badran nor Tai are deterred. Both say they’ve reached out to representatives of Sistani and have been met with encouraging responses.
“We were told that Sistani has no opinion yet about the Basra region, but that if the people support it, he won’t go against it,” said Badran.
* * *
There’s little doubt that the Basra campaign enjoys relatively broad popular support here. But analysts observing the fight for federalism from afar believe it has little hope of immediate success.
“In the short term, the Basra region campaign has close to no chance of succeeding, mainly because most politicians and groups are deeply entrenched in Baghdad politics and will refuse to support any initiative that will further weaken Baghdad’s hold over the country,” said Zaid Al-Ali, an expert on Arab constitutions at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Even Tai, probably the most bullish of the city’s campaigners, appears resigned to an extended battle. “If we lose, this will still be the first blow in the face of the political blocs that have ruined this country,” he said.
Over the long term, however, Ali imagines the cries for greater autonomy will only grow more potent if the central government can’t get its act together.
“The pull of nationalism and allegiance to Baghdad is already weaker than it was in 2003, and it will continue to erode unless Baghdad starts cleaning up Basra’s streets and creates the type of environment that will allow for Basrawis to thrive,” he said.
Indeed, federal momentum appears to be picking up across the country. A recent poll found that the number of citizens who identified themselves as “Iraqi above all” fell from 80 percent to 40 percent between 2008 and 2014. Meanwhile, federalists in Karbala, another southern governorate, have succeeded in winning over a number of local politicians — five out of the 27 on their legislative council so far — by suggesting that a turn from Baghdad might be the only way to keep the country together.
As the Kurds appear to be moving closer to independence, their political parties have been only too happy to dispense advice to Basra and other local federalists. Tai has been in touch with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s upstart Gorran movement, which has offered support in building Basra’s institutions. A former Kurdish Regional Government official also said, on the condition of anonymity, that its Department of Foreign Relations has also had contact with the Basra campaign.
But to those still struggling to make ends meet on Basra’s streets, these details are beside the point. They’re proud Iraqis who’ve just tired of ceaseless corruption, chaos, and incompetence. Federalism, they say, at least offers the possibility of change.
“With this government, there is no hope,” said Abbasi, the hardware store owner. “But with the Iraqi people, there is always hope.”
Photo credit: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images