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The Supreme Council Marks Fourth Anniversary of Baqir al-Hakim’s Assassination: No Mention of Federalism

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
17 July 2007

Every year since 2004, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (hereafter the Supreme Council*) has marked the anniversary of the 29 August 2003 assassination of its former leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, in accordance with the Islamic calendar. This year, the 2 Rajab commemoration fell on 17 July.

In 2005 and 2006 these celebrations were turned into propaganda events for the novel idea of a single federal Shiite entity extending from Baghdad to Basra. In 2005, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim used the occasion to officially launch the project of the Region of the Centre and the South; in 2006 it kicked off a public campaign that culminated in October with the adoption of the law for implementing federalism in Iraq – a legal framework which does not explicitly embrace the idea of a Shiite federal entity, but does not prevent it from becoming established either.

It is therefore noteworthy that this year’s principal commemoration** passed off almost without any mention of federalism. In contrast to earlier years, the main event was dominated by speeches by government representatives rather than by partisan Shiite figures. The meeting concluded with a message from Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (presently in Tehran for cancer treatment) delivered by his son Ammar. In it, the main focus was on the idea of Iraqi unity and the need to combat extra-constitutional or terrorist challenges to the Iraqi system of government. The word “federalism” did not occur once. Even the standard phrase “A pluralistic, democratic and federal Iraq” had been replaced by “the characteristics of a pluralist democratic system”; only the Kurdish representative focused on a “democratic federal Iraq”.

One obvious explanation for the comparatively low-key celebration could be Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s absence in Tehran. Nevertheless, his son Ammar is known to be even more of a pro-federal figure, and even he seems to somewhat modify his rhetoric on federalism these days. There is for instance an interesting contrast between the way his recent interview with Newsweek is recounted in the US magazine and on the Supreme Council website respectively. In the version published in the US, the relevant section goes as follows:

“Q: In the past you have said that you would support a strong autonomous region in the south of Iraq. Some have labelled this Shiastan. Do you still support this idea?
A: Yes, we still believe that the provincial and regional law can give each province or region its power, its capability to develop. At the same time, having a powerful central government that will help Iraq. It is similar to the system that exists in the U.S.

Q: Don't you think that this could lay the groundwork for the break-up of the country?
A: We believe that this step will unite Iraq, not divide it. It will put an end to the Iraqi Shiites’ historic feeling of being marginalized.”

On the Supreme Council website, on the other hand, the account of the interview is a little different:


“With regard to the subject of federalism, His Highness pointed to the fact that federalism is one of the administrative systems that have become established in the world and it gives the people the possibility to assume responsibility of their affairs, whereas at the same time there is a central government which unites the people like in the administrative system of the United States and other countries in the world. We believe that a system of regions would unite the country and that the people would feel that they participate and would praise the country which had given it the possibility to participate. The Middle Eastern mentality is that of the single strongman; accordingly, without any regions, all power would be in the hands of the central government in Baghdad and the people would become prevented from playing their role in the administration of the country. Similarly, federalism would put an end to the feeling of marginalisation which historically has affected the majority of Iraqis in most parts of the country.”

In other words, here all connotations of sectarianism have been removed, and the message is far more in tune with the ideas of the Iraqi constitution in which popular initiatives – not elite politicians, and certainly not outsiders – are to decide whether their governorates should stay as part of the unitary state, become federal units in their own right, or try join together with other governorates to larger federal entities.

There are two possible explanations as to why the Supreme Council apparently has toned down its federalism rhetoric in 2007. One recurrent argument is that they do so for purely utilitarian reasons: they recognise that many Arab states are highly critical of the concept of a single Shiite region (and therefore the Supreme Council do not wish to isolate themselves), or they may be trying to pose as “moderates” for a US audience. This is a way of reasoning which is broadly similar to “rational” explanations offered for the federal attitudes of other players in Iraqi politics as well: the Sadrists are “against” a Shiite federal entity because their core electorate supposedly is in Baghdad and therefore outside the projected region; similarly the Sunnis are “against” any federalism because “their” federal region would have no oil. The underlying assumption in this sort of argument is that there is a “natural” craving for sectarian federalism among all Iraqis, and that exceptions to this tendency require ad hoc explanations.

An alternative explanation is that the Supreme Council is beginning to understand the limits to the popular appeal of the idea of a single Shiite entity. This kind of interpretation focuses on widespread ideological resistance to federalism among Iraqis, as a far more profound force than calculations about oil and money. Interestingly, for the first time, there is now greater harmony between the message of the Supreme Council and the tone of the leading ulama of Najaf, with focus on “unity” and even condemnation of armed groups outside the governmental system. Still, the link to the grand ayatollahs remains tentative, Hakim on this occasion “renewing his praise for the religious leadership and, in their vanguard, Imam Sistani”. If the Supreme Council were to aspire to a role as a true force of reconciliation in Iraq, it would have to go even further: it would need to openly declare a break with its long-time sponsor, the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, and it would have to translate its new-found, apparently more flexible position on federalism into formal concessions in the ongoing constitutional revision process. That could bring Sunnis and many non-sectarian Shiites fully back into the political process in Iraq, and only then would the party deserve the label “moderate” which is so often designated to it by US commentators.

*After the name change from the old SCIRI in April 2007, a heated debate has ensued in Western circles about the most appropriate replacement acronym. A consensus on “SIIC” seems to have gained ground, if not universally so. However, a better approach would be to follow the Arabic literally, in which the abbreviation was and remains “the Supreme Council” (al-majlis al-a‘la) – perhaps indicative of the fact that the real changes to the party’s ideology remain highly tentative.

**Postscript: this analysis pertains to the main celebration on the day of the anniversary, 17 July. During lesser events on the subsequent days (specifically 19 and 21 July) the pro-federal Ammar al-Hakim did indeed deliver remarks in support of a single Shiite federal entity. Nevertheless, the failure of his father to touch on the federalism issue in the main address remains conspicuous and significant. On the whole, developments in 2007 clearly show that there is now more than one view on the question of federalism within the Supreme Council.


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