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Jan 25, 2008 | 03:00 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Iraq's Federalist Problem

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The top U.S. official negotiating with Iran over the future of Iraq blamed Tehran for delaying the next round of the negotiations, Reuters reported on Thursday. In an interview with the wire service, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said, "We're set to go, we have communicated that to the Iraqis, and the Iranians for whatever reason are holding back. We want to have these discussions, they have just suddenly gone quiet." Crocker also downplayed the significance of a possible visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Iraq, which had been announced by the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad a day earlier. Recently STRATFOR has discussed how the public-level U.S.-Iranian negotiations on Iraq have hit a snag which is obviously a function of the two countries' conflicting visions of the architecture of a future Iraqi state. But it is not enough for Washington and Tehran to agree on the nature of the Iraqi republic. No deal is possible as long as the country's principal ethno-sectarian factions disagree on the type of political system the country should have. In June 2006, after an agreement was reached on security portfolios and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed his government, various Shiite and Sunni groups began to pull out of al-Maliki's administration. Since then, negotiations have been held to get all stakeholders to agree upon a power-sharing mechanism, but to no avail. The failure of these intra-Iraqi talks is due to the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups' inability to agree on a system of governance. In a Jan. 18 op-ed in the Washington Post, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, an independent but influential Shiite politician affiliated with ruling Shiite Islamist coalition the United Iraqi Alliance, wrote that "the political objectives of Iraq's three main communities are unrealizable within the framework of a unitary, centralized state. . . . Resolution can be achieved only through a system that incorporates regional federalism, with clear, mutually acceptable distributions of power between the regions and the central government." Al-Rubaie is not just talking about how to get the various groups to agree upon a power-sharing formula under the existing system, but to reach a settlement on an entirely new system — one that does not entail a central Iraqi state but instead sets up a federal state that gives extensive autonomy to its regions. Of course, such essays appear with disclaimers that they reflect the views of the author, not official state policy. But the reality on the ground in Iraq clearly shows that al-Rubaie is expressing the views of large and significant groups in the Iraqi political landscape. The Kurds already are enjoying the fruits of federalism in the north, and the most powerful Shiite group — which also happens to be the most pro-Iranian — is calling for a similar autonomous federal region comprising the nine Shiite-majority provinces in southern Iraq. There is great opposition to both federal zones from various Sunni — as well as Shiite — quarters within Iraq, and also from the United States, Turkey and neighboring Sunni Arab states. Aware of this, al-Rubaie proposes a new federalist model of Iraq, consisting of five provinces: A "'Kurdistan province,' including the current Kurdistan and surrounding areas; a 'Western province,' including Mosul and the upper Tigris and Euphrates valleys; a 'Kufa province,' built around the Middle Euphrates governorates; a 'Basra province,' including the lower Tigris and Euphrates valleys; and a 'Baghdad province,' built around Greater Baghdad, which may include parts of Diyala and Salah ad Din governorates." The geographic makeup of these proposed regions is an effort to strike a triangular balance between the country's three key ethno-sectarian groups, as well as to satisfy the concerns of Washington, Ankara and the Arab capitals. The demographic distribution of the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds and the geographic distribution of energy resources is such that any agreement between the internal and external players on a federal model (no matter how you slice it) is going to be excruciatingly difficult. Even among the Shia, there are competing visions of autonomy. Since a deal remains elusive in the current system and designing a new one from scratch seems impossible, the United States and Iran have a long way to go before they can reach a settlement on Iraq.

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