Discrimination against Sunnis and the Question of Federalism Revived

This is especially true considering ongoing feelings of disenfranchisement on the part of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The tables now turned since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, most Sunnis continue to feel that they are bearing the brunt of Iraqi Shi’ite anger towards the former Sunni-led regime. Tens of thousands of Sunnis lost their jobs as a result of de-Ba’athification measures which were carried out indiscriminately. While Shi’ites were actively being recruited and employed by the new security apparatus, Sunnis were either not hired or threatened out of joining by insurgents, a fact that has been especially glaring considering that Sunnis comprised the highest ranking members of Iraq’s former security forces. Discrimination against Sunnis under the guise of anti-Ba’athification measures was manifested most prominently at the political level when more than 400 candidates—60 percent of whom were Sunni—were banned from participating in the 2010 election. Members of the Sunni Sahwa Movement, many of whom were provided arms by the US, have been detained for illegal possession of weapons.

In the worst cases, communities have faced large-scale detentions and targeted killing by Shi’ite death squads, or have been targeted in reprisal attacks for violence committed by al-Qaeda against Shi’ites. One of the bloodiest waves of reprisal killings against Sunnis occurred following the bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Mosque in 2006. In a matter of days after the attack, which was supposedly carried out by al-Qaeda, more than 1,000 Sunnis were killed in anti-Sunni rampages across the country, in addition to a string of kidnappings and mosque burnings.

Such discrimination has added a new dimension to the debate over federalism in Iraq. While Sunnis have traditionally opposed the establishment of new federal entities (which the Constitution technically allows for, though none have been created) since doing so would leave them isolated in the resource-poor regions they inhabit, the debate has taken a new turn as their disillusion with the status-quo in Iraq grows and the hope that the Shi’ite-led political apparatus will solve the problems of all the nation’s sectarian components grows dimmer. This is especially surprising considering that Sunnis had vehemently opposed the Constitutional stipulations that enshrined the potential establishment of separate entities.

Legislation supported by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in 2005 and 2006 to allow for the potential establishment of a semi-autonomous Shi’ite region in southern Iraq was opposed by both secular and religious Sunnis (most prominently the Sunni Islamic Virtue Party and secular Sunni Iraqi Accord Front of which Allawi’s Iraqiyya is part), along with the Shi’ite Islamist Sadrists. In 2008 the Accord Front publically stated that adoption of any federalist system would only lead to more division and violence amongst different Iraqi sectarian groups.

In the summer of 2010, a new pro-federalist proposal was made by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was also opposed by the Sadrists (as well as Maliki’s Shi’ite State of Law Coalition) though the majority Sunni Iraqiyya was split on the issue. One year later, in the summer of 2011, the federalist issue was once again brought to the media-forefront when parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya alluded to the possibility of a “Sunni separation” from Iraq unless conditions for them were improved. Nujayfi later explained that he was only expressing “how serious the situation had become” for Sunnis. Allawi himself expressed the shifting sentiment when he explained that though he opposed the creation of new federal entities, he supported more power to governorates on “a decentralized basis” (See: “Iraqiyya tries to clear the air on federalism”).

Shi’ite opinions have also been shifting. While Basra was singular in its support of potentially becoming separate Shi’ite region, new Shi’ite governorates that had previously been silent on the matter such as Wasit, Karbala, and Najaf have also joined the debate. Some within State of Law have stated that establishing semi-autonomous zones might be the only way to solve political disagreements, and that doing so might even draw support from Islamist groups who have thrived as violence continues.

Decentralization gained significant momentum on June 23, 2013, when a diverse coalition of forces—among them Shiite leader al-Sadr’s Al-Ahrar Movement, the Sunni Mutahidoun Coalitionthe Democratic Alliance of Kurdistan (DPAK), and the ISCI—successfully passed amendments to the Provincial Powers Law, granting powers to local governments. The amendments, which had been opposed by several groups including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, signaled a dramatic shift toward decentralization, bestowing upon local governments—through the Federation Council—precedence in areas of mutual administration with the central government; an increase in powers to provincial governors and their appointees; and a fivefold increase in petrodollar shares for the provinces from which oil is exported.

The law also sets the groundwork for a parliamentary committee to gradually transfer the powers of several national ministries to provincial administrations, which decentralists consider a key step in realizing Article 116 of the Iraqi Constitution, which reads, “The Federal System in the Republic of Iraq will be composed of a capital city, regions, decentralized provinces and local administrations.”

Mushreq Abbas, managing editor of Al-Hayat’s Iraq bureau, writes for Al-Monitor that some centralists may consider the amendments as a means for the central government to further extend its administrative powers using cities as regional hubs, while it is likely that others will view the amendments as a transitional measure directed against a weak Maliki government. A fully decentralized system still requires further legislation and restructuring—carrying out the dissolution of several federal ministries is a prime example.

Regardless, the law guarantees unprecedented authority to the Iraqi provinces, and has stirred momentum towards further decentralization, with the next step possibly a revived Federation Council Law. Provinces Committee member Nabil Harbo explained that the Federation Council has the “power to veto any decisions aimed at diminishing the authority of provinces.”

Increased autonomy for the provinces, however, does not preclude political conflict on the provincial level. Officials elected in the June 2013 governorate vote in Al-Anbar province, for example, have endured a prolonged and stalled effort to establish alliances that would form a government and nominate a governor. Many of the smaller blocs remained undecided on the larger blocs with which they would enter a coalition to form a majority. The two lists vying to lead a majority include the Aberoun bloc, which won five seats, and the Mutahidoun bloc, which won eight seats. The former is close to al-Maliki’s “friends and allies,” while the latter represents “the Islamist project in the province,” according to a source close to Al-Anbar’s former governor.

Ali Abel Sadah writes for Al-Monitor that “liberals in Anbar province felt that the local government was stolen from them through electoral fraud, to be controlled by Islamists.” Tensions are especially high as anti-government protests in nearby Baghdad have continued for several months.

In the political void resulting from the inability to form a government, several of the smaller blocs—even those who just one or two seats—have sought to take advantage of the larger blocs’ stagnation and offer their own leaders as candidates for governor. A source related to a tribal leader and politician in al-Anbar’s capital city, Ramadi, claimed that “the large blocs succeed […] especially with the equal chances in the struggle to win the post of governor” and that his bloc “intends to present a candidate to sort out difference and end the political vacuum in the province.”

Next: A Political Landscape in Flux