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Ali is an economist and political analyst, working at a private UK-based company. He worked previously at the World Health Organisation and has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter (@alialsaffar).

There is no panacea for Iraq’s problems

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.


30 Comments on “There is no panacea for Iraq’s problems”

  1. Hama Agha January 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Shared pride in being Iraqi? As a Shia, when was the last time you visited Anbar or Tikrit? That’s what I thought.

    • Ali Al-Saffar January 25, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Hi Hama,

      Are you suggesting that because I am Shi’i, that I would not visit “Sunni areas” in Iraq, or that I feel no affinity towards them or their people?

      Fine. But I was in Adhamiya in February, and my mother is from Fallujah. In fact, people like me, and there are many, are the exact reason why these shallow, broad-brush formulas just won’t work.


      • Hama Agha January 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

        Hi Ali,

        You make my case for me. Great that you’re mother is from Fallujah – when was she last there? Great that you were able to make the journey within Shia-dominated Baghdad to a Sunni part of town.

        What do you mean people like you? You’re no average Iraqi.

      • Ali Al-Saffar January 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

        Hi Hama, I didn’t “make the journey”, I stayed there.

        You’re right, I’m no “average Iraqi”, in that I live in London, but what I meant (a point that most people seem to have understood), was Iraqis that come from mixed families.


      • Hama Agha January 27, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

        Exactly Ali, in other words it makes no difference that your mother is from Fallujah… the question is what connection do you actually have to Fallujah, what connections does your mother have to Fallujah?

        You see, it makes little difference if an Iraqi has Sunni and Shia parents from different parts of country unless they have a connection to that particular part.

        In other words, if one’s mother was a Kurd, and father was an Arab, the former means nothing if that particular person has nothing to show for his/her Kurdish side.

      • Ali Al-Saffar January 27, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

        And do you know for sure who feels an affinity to what? You are making full-blown conclusions on existential topics on identity based on an assumption that, I am quite convinced, you’re not qualified to make.

    • Lion of Babylone January 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      I’m Shi’i from a famous Shi’i family, but three quarters of my family is married into Sunni families, and almost all of my cousins have Sunni wives/husbands. The husband of my aunt is also Kurdish. One of my uncles was also married into a christian women (although not Iraqi, it proves something).

      My best friend is Hussain and he is Sunni. In the street I live in, one of the families is composed of a Shi’i guy married into a Sunni women, the house in front of them a Sunni guy married into a Shia women, the next house is a Sunni family, and the next a Kurdish.

      We in Iraq as Shia do feel proud about Nezhan Falah al-Jibouri, Ali Ahmed Sabah, and Othman from Adhamia, saving the drawning Shia pilgrims in Tigris back in 2006. I’m sure the Sunnis feel the same about Shia. All pride to be Iraqi.

      • Hama Agha January 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

        Funny how this blog is dominated and read only by Shias’is who come from Shia families and in the above person’s case ‘a famous Sh’i family’….and then the person above goes on to start his final paragraph with the words: “We in Iraq as Shia”

        …..enough said.

    • Sara January 25, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      I think that’s a bit irrelevant.

      • Lion of Babylone January 27, 2012 at 8:17 am #

        @ Sara: I was replying to the first comment and giving another example to what Ali was saying.

  2. Lion of Babylone January 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    Quoting from Gelb’s article “The country is teetering on the brink of civil war”, the Americans kept saying this too often and in many occasions. One thing is sure: although violence is still hurting Iraq, it is in reality political and takes the shape of sectarian one. Saddam was not religious, but he used his sect to oppress other sects and ethnicity groups to stay in power.

    There wasn’t and won’t be a civil war in Iraq. I don’t think Iraqis will fight one. They might be fight over power (by political fractions and parties), but never caring weapons to kill neighbors and relatives from different sects or ethnicity.

    What I want to say is that civil war and sectarian conflict is persistently used by different sides when dealing with the issue of governing and controlling Iraq.

    And federalism is always used in a context suggesting it is a solution for civil war and sectarian violence. Why not a solution for bureaucracy and bad government services?

    The federalism suggested is always based on sect or ethnicity. Administrative efficiency however doesn’t have to do with sects or ethnicity.

    Isn’t it actually the other way? Doesn’t federalism in the sectarian or ethnically context mean more the likability of civil war???? (A Shiite federal state in conflict with a Sunni federal state) Why do they keep relating these two concept in this way??

    I’m not a conspiracy theory guy, but isn’t Iraq continuously portrayed to be always suffering from sectarian problems or on the edge of civil war? Doesn’t suggesting that too often mean that it is the way the world wants to look at Iraq?

    The words “civil” or “sectarian” war should be taboo in Iraqi politics, because using them too often might suggest to some that it is an option, because although I don’t believe a civil can happen in Iraq, sectarian violence is always used to achieve some political goals.

    Thank you.

  3. ABS January 25, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Examples like Lion of Babylon are very common, and just prove the complicated and intricate reality of Iraq. I know Iraqis have been put under tremendous sectarian strain over the last few decades (more so since the Allied invasion and occupation), but even that isn’t enough to diminish the centuries of relative co-existence of the various ethnic minorities. And this co-existence has crystallised in many forms, e.g. inter-marrying, a scattering of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, the sharing of certain cultural practices etc.

    This idea of federalism in Iraq is so simple-minded (I wouldn’t expect it from someone considered an expert in the region) that I can’t help suspect a hidden agenda behind it. The tragedy of Bosnia comes to mind, and how the West tried to split Bosnia into three provinces as a ‘solution’, where two of them would be shared between Croatia and Serbia.

  4. Seerwan January 25, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    In Lion of Babylone’s vein, my dad is a Iraqi Arab Shia while my mum is an Iraqi Kurdish Sunni.

    Shallow analysis by Leslie Gelb.

    I trust everyone has read this (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/2011/02/look-into-iraqs-creation-governance-and.html) excellent, though very long post, by Joel Wing.

    Especially the answer to the question:-

    “One of the major images people have of Iraq is that it is a “made up” country, created by the British when they, and other European countries, were carving up the Ottoman Empire. Could you address that issue?”

    Its a must read.

  5. Lion of Babylone January 25, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Here we go. I say this: Civil war in Iraq would mean family war, which is simply doesn’t have its place in Iraq’s culture.

    • Seerwan January 25, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      I think there’s been a misunderstanding; I agree with you.
      I repeat: my dad is a Iraqi Arab Shia while my mum is an Iraqi Kurdish Sunni.

  6. Lion of Babylone January 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Sorry, it was a clumsy way of saying I agree with you totally because this is nature of the Iraqi society. Apologies for not being clear enough.

  7. Sara January 25, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    Personally, I do not trust Iraqi people.
    I don’t trust the fact that they would not get involved in a civil war if further sectarians conflicts accelerate, with all my respects.

    Iraq is a strange country, expect all the impossibles. Simply we shouldn’t be so sure about the future. Just like how Iraqi people had the nerve to fight a bloody sectarian war in 2006, which was unexpected in all means, it could occur again, maybe?

    Many people seem to associate the idea of federal states to divisions in ethnic groups and sectarian means. That’s not the case. Cities in Iraq are demanding for federal states because of the lack of economic support from the central government, and that’s very clear.

    • TJ January 25, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      TBH Sara I dont trust you. You’re analysis of events is often shallow and shows little understanding of Iraq.

      I trust the Iraqi people.

      • Sara January 25, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

        Everyone has different views on the situation in Iraq. If you trust the, I don’t. Express…why you don’t agree with me.

      • Hama Agha January 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

        Which Iraqi people? And you accuse Sara of being shallow and showing little understanding. Idiot.

    • ABS January 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm #


      If the cities feel unfair support from the central government then that certainly needs to be addressed. But to do it in a federal frame of mind is disastrous.

      It may possibly result in better economic opportunities, but you don’t seem to consider all the consequences and ramifications of federalism in a land like Iraq. Be careful not to assume progress and what’s good for Iraq can be defined in political and economic terms only.

      • Sara January 25, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

        What is your main issue with federalism? Do you fear divisions? What is it exactly?

    • Ali Al-Saffar January 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

      Hi Sara,

      I know the federalism thing has been used by political parties to make claim and counter-claim to smear patriotic credentials etc. But my post was referring specifically to the Gleb-style arguments that were first raised by Biden and have recently become popular mainly among Western policy-makers. This argument for federalism is definitely a split based on ethno-sectarianism, this is its raison d’etre.

      Lion of Babylone very very eloquently raised some excellent points:

      “And federalism is always used in a context suggesting it is a solution for civil war and sectarian violence. Why not a solution for bureaucracy and bad government services?

      The federalism suggested is always based on sect or ethnicity. Administrative efficiency however doesn’t have to do with sects or ethnicity.

      Isn’t it actually the other way? Doesn’t federalism in the sectarian or ethnically context mean more the likability of civil war???? (A Shiite federal state in conflict with a Sunni federal state) Why do they keep relating these two concept in this way??”

      In my mind…that is absolutely spot on.

      And I remind everyone to please not make any of this personal. The purpose of this blog to so have people who disagree with one another come to discuss contentious issues.

    • Lion of Babylone January 27, 2012 at 8:15 am #

      People keep saying it was a sectarian war in 2006. The fact is that it was sectarian “violence” and never reached the scale of a “war”. Most of those attacking were either not Iraqis but fighters from neighbor countries who thought there were doing Jihad, or Baathis, and a few Iraqis really driven by sectarian hate. They killed thousands, but the majority of the families who had victims never responded. Some militias tried to take the retaliation process in hand, but also those were representing only a fraction of Iraqis and not the whole society.

      When we say war it means that the majority of people were fighting or supporting it. It was never like that. The people were dying, but never responded. I was there in Baghdad and saw all of it. I have cousins in Adhamia, and friends in Dura, and they added their stories to what I know.

      I disagree with the term war not only because it wasn’t one, but also because the media, the Americans, and some politicians kept saying it was one for purposes of their interest. A sectarian war is one like Lebanon’s for example. Troops controlling neighbor hoods and shooting from house to house. It never was like that. Some areas were under the control of gun men, but nobody controlled Baghdad, and when the security forces became stronger they took control over the whole city.

      • Sara February 1, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

        ‘It was never like that ?’ In fact if your aware Iraqs situation in 2006 was worse that in Lebanon, and until today. Our troops from all kind held terrorist actions aginst their own people because of their different sect beliefes and from both sides that is.

      • Sara February 1, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

        Are you sure that security forces have acrually became stronger? Is that why today in Iraq we have instability in terms of secuirty?

  8. Khan Murjan January 26, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    Let’s not avoid the real issues here. First and foremost, this is above all a personal discussion that should be comprised of personal remarks and, when necessary, harsh and cutting personal attacks.

  9. Lion of Babylone February 2, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    @ Sara: Well I came back to Iraq in 2003 and lived through all the death and killing until it calmed down. When you say Civil War, the name doesn’t come from the amount of people dying. It is talking about the nature of the war. Sectarian violence in Iraq might have killed more than the civil war in Lebanon, but this doesn’t mean it was a civil war. The Iraq Iran war or WWII killed thousands and millions, but they were not civil wars.

    Civil war means people who are to be citizens killing other citizen, leaded by war lords. People were dying, however because of militias, terrorists, and the intervention of foreign forces and hostile neighbors, and not because of citizens killing fellow citizens.

    In Lebanon the society was truly divided, but in Iraq all were talking about unity. Politicians are corrupt and hostile, but not the people. A civil war needs a majority of people that is so ill minded and hostile that kills for very bad reasons.

    And the instability and security problems are due the fact that not our security, but more our political elite is infiltrated by criminals. I’m here not referring to a special case but rather a phenomenon that has been in Iraqi politics since 2003.When you are on the ground this things will become very clear to you.

    • Sara February 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

      People in Iraq follow well known figures, and when these figures insist to fight…they do so.

      • Lion of Babylone February 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

        But the majority doesn’t want to fight. Sara, if those who carry weapons and go fight on the street more than 1% (around 30,000 or even less) there would be no Iraq on the map. All that mess is created by a few hundreds who know when to kill and how. And yes, there are figures who would love to burn Iraq, but those can’t if the majority of the Iraqis are not responding to their calls for violence. Those figures are failing because people know understand their evil intentions. People are tired from all the mess that is going on. They don’t want to fight. There can’t be a civil war in Iraq. Iraqis don’t want to fight. They want to live in peace.

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