Mission Impossible

With two-thirds of Iraq’s provinces in open conflict with the capital, Nouri al-Maliki is resorting to Saddam Hussein’s playbook to keep the country together.


When extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took over parts of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar province in January, the crisis was largely interpreted as an isolated event — the product of spillover from the Syrian civil war and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s heavy-handed response to a growing Sunni protest movement. Zoom out, however, and the unraveling of Anbar is just one part of a much broader breakdown in center-periphery ties. Of the 18 provinces in Iraq, 12 are in open conflict with Baghdad, including the three Kurdish ones. All are — or hope to be soon — oil or gas producers. With 93 percent of Iraq’s revenue derived from hydrocarbon sales, the country could pay a high price if relations deteriorate further.

Fraught relations between Baghdad and its provinces is, at least in part, a result of the U.S. occupation — and of Washington’s inability to decide whether to support a decentralized federal state or try to rebuild a strong center so that Iraq would not disintegrate. U.S. advisors favored the impossible: federalism, decentralization, Kurdish autonomy, but also a strong central government. Instead, the Kurds in 2005 forced through a constitution that gave their region considerable autonomy and severely restricted Baghdad’s authority. The Kurds were elated, but American fears of a break-up of the country increased. As a result, the United States welcomed Maliki’s growing assertiveness, backed him again after the 2010 elections, and ignored his growing authoritarianism. Iraqi provincial officials, on the other hand, grew resentful of Baghdad’s heavy-handedness and increasingly envious of Kurdish autonomy.

The unresolved problem of the relative power between the central government and the provinces is being played out now in the increasingly open conflict between Baghdad and the provincial authorities. The future structure and stability of Iraq will be determined as much by that conflict as by the battle against ISIS in Anbar.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the tension between Baghdad and the provinces is not predominantly sectarian. Nor is it the result of the machinations of terrorist organizations supported from outside Iraq. Both Sunni and Shiite provinces increasingly question the central government’s control — particularly over finances — and a growing number of elected governors and members of provincial councils openly advocate transforming their provinces into regions with Kurdistan-like autonomy. Although the constitution provides a mechanism for such transformation — and the 2008 Law for the Creation of Regions spells out the process — Maliki has so far refused to allow any province to change its status. As of the end of 2013, however, at least six provincial councils had voted in favor of becoming autonomous regions.

Tensions between Baghdad and the provincial councils are not new, although they have never been as high as they are now. Elected provincial councils have been chafing for years under Baghdad’s control, accusing the central government of hindering the reconstruction process by withholding money owed to them and channeling projects through inefficient ministries in the capital. The provinces may not have the administrative capacity and technical expertise to do any better, but under the present system of centralized control, a substantial portion of Iraq’s investment budget has gone unspent every year, while citizens continue to suffer without sufficient electricity, water, and other essential services.

Part of the problem is that the constitutional division of power has never actually been settled. An attempt in 2008 to clarify the powers of the provinces and the nature of their relationship with Baghdad prior to the country’s first provincial elections failed to settle the issue. The 2008 Provincial Powers Law, passed by the national legislature is ambiguous on many points and, like the constitution, subject to conflicting interpretations. Provincial councils believe the law gives them legislative powers — which would make the Iraqi system a federal one — but Baghdad insists that the provinces are simply components of decentralized administrative system.

Increasingly, the provinces making a bid for regionalization are holding up the example of Kurdistan as an illustration of why they want the change. Kurdistan, they argue, is more stable, increasingly prosperous, and able to provide the services other provinces lack, particularly electricity. It is also signing contracts with international oil companies and seeking to export its oil directly, despite vociferous opposition from Baghdad. Remarkably, among the politicians who cite Kurdistan as a model to emulate is Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province, which is embroiled in its own territorial dispute with Kurdistan. Like most Sunni politicians, Nujaifi used to fulminate against the autonomy of Kurdistan and the independent contracts it signed with oil companies. Now he openly advocates working jointly with Kurdistan and ExxonMobil to develop the oil blocs in the contested territory.

Major Shiite provinces, particularly those rich in oil, also want to follow the example of Kurdistan. Although some Shiite leaders toyed briefly in 2005 and 2006 with the idea of forming a large Shiite autonomous region embracing nine provinces, they quickly dropped the plan because the numerical majority of Shiites in Iraq allowed them to become the dominant political force in the entire country. Indeed, the Maliki government is widely seen to be dominated by Shiites and to represent their interests. But the idea of Shiite autonomy is now being revived by provincial officials who do not believe Maliki represents the interests of the provinces. Basra’s Shiite governor, Majid al-Nasrawi, for example, has been a particularly vocal advocate for provincial powers, demanding the right for Basra to sign oil contracts and convening a conference of the rebellious oil-producing provinces in January.

In this atmosphere of growing discontent, Maliki has made no effort to appease the provinces. Instead, he has taken steps to antagonize them further. On Jan. 15, he presented to his cabinet a budget for 2014 that reduces the bonus oil-producing regions are supposed to receive in addition to the normal budgetary allocation based on population size. Since 2013, hydrocarbon-producing provinces have been entitled $5 for each barrel of oil or every 150 cubic meters of gas they produce. The proposed 2014 budget would reduce the payment from $5 to $1.

The official explanation for the drastic reduction is that Iraq is experiencing budgetary difficulties. There is little doubt that Baghdad will face a budget deficit in 2014 — as it did in 2013 — because of stagnating oil exports and mounting expenditures, particularly on weapons. But that is not the entire story. Paying the provinces the amount stipulated by law would not increase the bottom line if Baghdad decreased the share it spends directly. The issue is primarily one of control.

The cabinet approved Maliki’s budget and in response, representatives from seven oil-producing provinces held an emergency meeting in Basra on Jan. 25. There, the provinces agreed to demand that Iraq’s legislature refrain from passing the budget until the $5-per-barrel payment is reinstated. The governor of an eighth province, Kirkuk, joined in their demands two days later.

If the legislature caves to these demands, Iraq civil servants could go unpaid and numerous projects will run out of funds, further adding to the tensions. 

But it’s not all about control over the purse strings. A proposed increase in the total number of provinces in Iraq is also feeding the center-periphery tensions. In a move reminiscent of Saddam Hussein — who frequently redrew provincial boundaries to punish or reward certain population groups and to strengthen his own control — Maliki has set about creating several new provinces.

The government is seeking to carve two new provinces out of the northern Nineveh province, punishing its governor for suggesting cooperation with Kurdistan and courting the support of Christian and Turcoman minorities, who dominate, respectively, the proposed Nineveh Plain and Tal Afar provinces. Likewise, Maliki’s cabinet has proposed forming another province with a large Turkoman population in Tuz Khurmatu, now part of Salahuddin, again punishing a Sunni province and favoring a non-threatening minority. For reasons that are less clear, Baghdad is also studying the possibility of carving a new Fallujah province out of Anbar.

Details concerning the boundaries of the new regions have yet to be released and there remains disagreement about the legality of the decision, with the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, contesting the government’s power to create new provinces. (A new province, Halabja, was officially formed on Jan. 1, 2014 on Kurdish territory, with little controversy because the move was initiated by the Kurdistan Regional Government, not by Baghdad.) The provinces that would lose territory under the proposed scheme have not been consulted and are bound to see the changes as yet another example of Maliki’s disregard for their interests.

The centralized Iraqi state Maliki has attempted to consolidate is being challenged from many directions. ISIS is occupying parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, and the tribal militias to which Maliki has turned for help have made it clear that they are fighting against ISIS, not for Maliki and the central government. If the fight to dislodge ISIS is successful, Maliki will be forced to give more control to tribal leaders and their militias. The prime minister has also alienated oil-producing provinces by withholding payments to which they feel entitled and is inviting confrontation with governors and provincial councils by forming new provinces. Making matters worse, Baghdad remains at loggerhead with Kurdistan over control of oil and gas in the region. The question is no longer whether a new model of governance will replace the failing one created under the U.S. occupation, but whether it will emerge from negotiations or from further conflict. In short, Maliki’s effort to maintain the old, centralized Iraqi state appears increasingly to be mission impossible.

Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.