Iraqi Leaders’ Cold War over Federalism/ Ardeshir Pashang*

IThe Event

“The Republic of Iraq is a single federal, independent and a fully sovereign state in which the system of government is republican, representative, parliamentary and democratic”. This is the first article of Iraq constitution drafted in 2005, approved nationally by referendum. This principle has resisted any change during the 2009 reformations. However, despite the emphasis, the Iraqi leaders conceive federalism in different, sometimes opposing ways. Reflecting on the issue, thus, federalism has happened to be a focal point for developing a cold war among different groups and blocs. The paper tries to explore the different ethnical and sectarian groups’ stances on federalism.

The event analyzed

Federalism description 

Federalism as a political-managing system often applied by great countries having a variety of ethnics, sects, languages and cultures to establish regional local states responding to the region features to guarantee the maximum efficiency and the least tensions and turmoil in the community. This system has already been applied by many countries such as the U.S. and Germany. In case of Iraq, since 2000 and prior to the invasion ousting Saddam Hussein and during the transitional period as well, the system supported by the United States was approved by all the country blocs and groups to replace the banned Ba’ath party.

Federalism in Iraq Constitution

As mentioned, the first principle in Iraq constitution has named this country a federal democratic republic. It has been stressed by the other major sections in the Iraq Constitution, including the third section named “federal powers”. Being consisted of 53 articles from 46 to 99, the section includes tasks and competencies assigned to the judicature, the executive and the legislature, highlighting the principle of federalism. The articles 108 to 112 in the forth section are as well devoted to the “roles and authorities held by federal officials.” Including the articles 116 to 122, the fifth section deals with “powers of regions” in which the code number 117 reads: “1) This Constitution, upon coming into force, shall recognize the region of Kurdistan along with its existing authorities as a federal region. 2) This constitution shall affirm new regions established in accordance with its provisions.” The 116 code reads that “one or more governorates shall have the right to organize a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following methods: 1) A request by one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region. 2) A request by one-third of the voters in each of the governorates to form a region.” In what follows, the three major Iraqi blocs’ approaches will be considered regarding this issue:

A- Shiite’s stand

Iraqi Shiites are consisted of different groups and divisions in which some are not categorized by religious factors, namely Iyad Allawi who despite being a Shiite is not fitting into Shiite groups. As one of the Shiite blocs, one can name al-Dawa party with “Nouri-al-Maliki” as the leader. Regarded as one of the most influential Shiite political blocs, the aforementioned party under “State of Law” coalition gained 89 seats in the parliament. Optimistically, Maliki can be seen as a critic of federalism, and realistically viewed, he is considered to be a federalism opponent. As Iraq PM, he has been referring to undesirable, negative effects of federalism for Iraq future in his interviews during the last year. Having declared himself as no opponent of federalism, however, he rarely uses “federal” talking about Iraq, confining himself to the word “republic”. The approach seems to be widely mimicked by state-supported media and websites. The recent rising requests for establishing federal regions especially in Salahudin province supported by the council request, have been denied officially by Maliki. Gaining 40 seats in the Parliament, another influential Shiite bloc related to Muqtada Sadr, considered as one of Maliki’s trusted allies, is not welcoming the formation of federal regions.

Iraq Islamic High Parliament led by “Amar Hakim”and “National Congress” led by “Ahmad Chalapi” and Fazilat Islami as well are among other Shiite blocs gaining seats in Parliament. Among them, High Parliament is more optimistic about federalism, even supporting a federal region in south of Iraq with Basra as the center. Being defeated by the Dawa party in 2010 Parliament election, they tried to restore their power by restricting Dawa influence through forming more federal regions. National congress and figures such as Chalapi, Ebrahim Jafari almost share Hakim’s viewpoint. However, one should not turn a blind eye on the fact that adopting stances similar to Maliki’s in the recent years, Ja’afari himself as the Iraq PM, was made to relinquish the power by Kurds and and other ruling parties.

B) Sunni Arabs Stances

The most important party related to Sunnis is comprised of Iraqiya coalition led by “Iyad Alawi” accompanied with prominent figures such as “Saleh al-Motlaq”, “Rafe’a al-Essawi” and “Osameh Nujaifi”. This bloc was formed to replace the more conventional Sunni groups supported “Ajil al-Yavar”, a regional leader. The stance adopted by the bloc towards federalism in Iraq was originated from the Sunni’s concern with their share of power. On this basis, up to mid 2010 when “Strategic Policies High Council” led by Iyad Allawi promised to take some of PM huge competencies, Iraqiya opposed the idea of federalism being spread. However, with these promises not fulfilled and PM approach criticized by Iraqiya and other groups, Iraqiya changed its course. Accordingly, initially backing Maliki, Iyad Allawi expressed his opposition against federalism in Salahudin. However, with the relations between two sides broken off; he turned to be a supporter of the federalism idea. Allawi said: “perhaps the formation of semi-autonomous governators can solve the political turmoil resulted from power centralization in Iraq”.

c) Kurds’ Stance



Definitely, the Iraqi Kurds are the key supporters of federalism who played an undeniable role to have included federalism into the Constitution. As noted, the Constitution recognized federalism in three north governators titled “Iraq Kurdistan region state”. Despite differing viewpoints and the tensions among ruling and opposing groups, all Kurd groups including secular and Islamists are in agreement over federalism and support it. During recent months, “Massoud Barzani”, Kurdistan region president, has tried to have federalism implicitly emphasized after any speech given by Maliki in which federalism was criticized and rejected.  In fact, they seem to represent the two extremes, with one extreme strongly supporting and the other side challenging federalism. Recently, Barzani talking to some international media like BBC and Al-Arabia , has declared that Kurds are committed to a federal system ensuring pluralism and equal rights for minorities. Otherwise having other options considered, they would violate the sovereignty, if Maliki was unwilling to have his attitudes unchanged.



Notable is Kurds’ claim about federalism which provides federal states with more power and authority. Kurds officially seek more competencies than usual and in fact in the recent years, they have already succeeded in doing so. For example, Kurds enjoy autonomous judicial system, almost independent military, signing international convections without the central government being informed.


With what already explained and the fact that different Iraqi groups define federalism in different, opposing ways and more governators seeking federalism, one might say that federalism is considered as Achilles heel for Iraq sovereignty in the upcoming years. It can affect Iraq security and political consistency and would pave the way for putting the country borders in danger.

*(Researcher of International Peace Studies Center)

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