Thank God for Leslie Gelb, who after an entire three hours back in 2006 found the panacea that would solve Iraq’s problems; federalism. In an article by Gelb published a couple of weeks ago, he suggests that because “Shiites, Sunni and Kurds have been at each other’s throats for centuries”, federalism that “provides ethno-religious groups the authority to run its own regional affairs” is the only thing that can pull Iraq from the brink of civil war, and stop it from becoming an Iranian protectorate.
Mr Gelb even has a suggestion for mixed areas…they could be turned into “federal cities under international protection”. Revenue would also be distributed “according to each group’s percentage of the total population”. As for how to advance the formula, well, that can “be left up to the Iraqis”….good to know Mr Gelb thinks the Iraqis should actually be involved in any of the decision-making here. He then points to the UAE as proof of the virtues of this formula.
I am actually a supporter of de-centralisation. I think far too much power is concentrated in the hands of the government in Baghdad, the arbiter in an insanely pervasive nanny state. But I do have a problem with the hatchet-job, silver bullet nonsense prescribed to Iraqis these days. Here are some reasons why:
1) Rulers for drawing maps: The most vocal opponents ofIraq often argue that the country was artificially created by the colonial powers with little regard for the situation on the ground. Basically,Britain and France carved up the region, drawing what were to become national borders with rulers (see Iraq’s border with Saudi). How then, do you separate even ethnically/religiously homogenous regions from one another? It’s not easy, and if Belgium can be used as an example of the successes of federalism, then the partition of India should serve as a lesson of the dangers of creating regional boundaries. Add oil, and disputed territories become that much more explosive.
Plus, what happens to villages, towns and cities in the federal region that are actually dominated by members of the ‘’wrong’’ sect or ethnicity? These exist in abundance across Iraq (e.g Zubair in Basra).
2) Natural resources: Gelb points at the success of the UAE, but under the model adopted by the Emirates, the regions that have the oil don’t actually have to redistribute the wealth; they only give a small percentage of their revenues to the federal government. So any province that includes Basra, which is currently contributing to over 80% of the entire country’s oil revenue, will be super rich…and won’t be obliged to pass its wealth on to other federal regions. And, under the model Gelb proposes, why should they? His proposal suggests a split on ethno-religious lines, at the expense of a wider national identity, which Gelb seems to think doesn’t exist at all. Why would rich federal regions then continue to pay into a fund held by the stub of the central government in an “internationally protected” Baghdad, only to be redistributed to people they supposedly have no connection to?
3) What on earth does “international protection” even mean?: Does it mean a loss of sovereignty over Kirkuk, Baghdad and any other diverse region? What self-respecting government, or people, would respect that?
4) The basic premise is lacking: Most importantly, why take it for granted that Iraqis have been “at each other’s throats for centuries”? I am not silly enough to pretend like there aren’t massive issues with sectarianism in our country, but there is also a shared pride in being Iraqi. The week after Gelb published his article, Nezhan Falah al-Jibouri and Ali Ahmed Sabah, Sunni soldiers from Kirkuk and Diyala heroically tore the central premise to shreds by sacrificing their own lives to stop a suicide bomber killing Shia pilgrims in Dhi Qar. We Iraqis should take pride in this. There is no panacea for the problems, but building trust between Iraq’s communities will not come through separating them.