Three months after protesters first took to the streets during a sweltering Iraqi summer, a fragile calm has been reestablished in the southern-Iraqi province of Basra. Security forces instituted a curfew to prevent the nightly riots that have claimed the lives of dozens of protesters. Last weekend, mobs torched the regional offices of several Iraqi political parties and the Iranian Consulate, and fired rockets toward Basra’s airport.
The protesters’ demands have been relatively simple: water, electricity, employment and an end to Iraq’s endemic political corruption.
The protesters and their representatives have also frequently called on Baghdad to allow Basra increased degrees of economic and political independence from the central state. Their goal is to take power away from the bureaucratic chaos of the capital and put it back in the hands of Basrans.
But Basra’s recent calls for autonomy are far from new. They are instead the latest stage in a 15-year struggle that dates back to the earliest days that followed the U.S.-led intervention of 2003.
Decentralization in Iraq
Following the toppling of the Baathist state, the coalition undertook an ambitious project to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. Central to this process was the writing of Iraq’s constitution in 2005 which stipulated that Iraq’s federal system is composed of provinces which are led by provincial councils.
Under the constitution, each provincial council has the right to submit a petition demonstrating support for autonomy. The central government is then responsible for holding a province-wide referendum. In theory, a successful referendum would cede greater control to the province in governing local affairs — similar to the relationship between states and the federal government in the United States.
Despite several legitimate submissions for decentralization, no newly autonomous governorate has emerged. Indicative of his authoritarian style, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quashed, undermined or ignored several applications to decentralize.
An Independent Basra?
Amid these, Basra’s attempts toward decentralization have been among Iraq’s most prominent — as well as Iraq’s most actively suppressed or routinely ignored.
They date back to 2003 when several prominent Basrans repeatedly called on Iraq’s new political elite to grant their province increased degrees of political and economic autonomy.
In both 2008 and 2010, official petitions were submitted to the central government that called for the capital to recognize the economic significance of the province. However, both were quashed under Maliki.
The ensuing years saw numerous efforts to gain some local control over Basra’s political and economic future. These included threats by council members that they would sue the federal government for lost oil and gas revenue or seize control of state-owned oil fields in Basra if progress wasn’t made on decentralization.
Through 2014 and 2015, in the midst of the Islamic State onslaught, a pro-autonomy civil society campaign sparked off in Basra. Led by Basra’s youth, they called themselves the “Assembly of the Sons of the Basra Region,” and started a social media campaign that went viral. They also unfurled a giant new flag of the Basra region at the Al-Mina’a soccer stadium and hung it up at the Basra airport.
Such a groundswell of support culminated in another bid for autonomy being submitted in 2015. The request was accompanied by a petition signed by thousands of locals. The onus then fell on Baghdad to make the necessary arrangements to hold a governorate-wide referendum. Three years later, the referendum has yet to occur.
Decentralization and the 2018 protests
The repeated failures of the Iraqi government to meaningfully engage Basra’s legitimate calls for autonomy are one of a long list of grievances driving the current unrest.
Many of the young men who triggered the initial protests in southern Iraq chanted pro-Basran slogans while carrying the same Basra flag they had first unfurled in 2014.
Following weeks of unrest, in late July of this year members of Basra’s Provincial Council once again signed and submitted a bid for Basra’s independence and requested that Baghdad finally implement the promised referendum.
At the time, one member of Basra’s provincial council acknowledged that the protests were not just fueled by citizen’s demands for electricity and potable water, but also by a call to grant Basra the independence to tackle such entrenched problems.
Following a month of inaction, in August a prominent Basran politician and pro-autonomy campaigner threatened to take the Iraqi government to the Supreme Court over their failures to act on Basra’s legitimate bids for decentralization.
Reflecting on the ongoing protests and Basra’s bid for autonomy, one local resident told a news outlet: “We want to get rid of corruption, inadequate public services … The only way forward is to have independence from the central government. What have they done for us so far?”
Such sentiments are indicative of a Basra that has endured 15 years of Baghdad’s broken promises and abject failures.
They are also indicative of an Iraq struggling to recover from the onslaught of the Islamic State, the divisive Kurdish referendum on secession, as well as the failure to form a new Iraqi government after the May 2018 elections.
A key way to overcome the crisis of faith in the Iraqi state and to address the concerns of the protesters, would be for the nation’s political elite to make meaningful progress toward decentralization.
Indeed, the fact that Basra’s pro-autonomy campaign has become a clarion call of the largely youth-led protests of today indicates a growing groundswell of support for independence from Baghdad.
The peaceful decentralization of southern Iraq may in fact serve as an antidote to Iraq’s ongoing conflicts and herald a move toward a more stable, democratic and peaceful future.
Benjamin Isakhan is Associate Professor of Politics and Policy Studies in the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University, Australia. He is also Adjunct Senior Research Associate, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg.
Peter E. Mulherin is a research fellow and doctoral candidate in the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University, Australia.