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The Law on the Powers of the Governorates Is Passed after Significant Cross-Sectarian Cooperation in the Iraqi Parliament

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

14 February 2008

The law on the powers of governorates not organised in a region was adopted by the Iraqi parliament on 13 February, but much of the reporting surrounding it in the Western mainstream media has been highly misleading.

In the first place, it should be emphasised that this is not an elections law and never was. It is a law that describes some of the powers of the existing administrative subunits in Iraq: the governorates or muhafazat. The idea of including a timeline for elections (1 October has been reported by several reliable sources) was creatively introduced by the opponents of the Maliki government; it was ferociously resisted by Maliki’s most important backers, the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). These parties argued that an election timeline would simply be out of place and should be postponed to separate legislation – an attitude many observers ascribe to the strong position these parties enjoy in the current governorate councils and the risk they run by holding elections. Their grudging accept of a timeline for elections thus represented a considerable triumph for the opposition, and at the same time exposed both the weak parliamentary fundament of the Maliki government and the anti-democratic strategies attempted by several of its coalition partners. Incidentally, the law also is not “one benchmark” but rather half a benchmark as per the US Congress nomenclature (the relevant benchmark point also included a law on provincial elections as well as completion of the elections commission, neither of which has been achieved). This should however not detract from the considerable significance of the bill as a hopeful step forward for a more nuanced and realistic framework for dividing power between centre and provinces in Iraq, without much of the hysteria that has surrounded more fanciful visions of instant federalism for hypothetical entities that currently have no real existence on the ground.

Secondly, the context of the bill’s adoption has been grossly misrepresented in the Western media. The law was passed in a bundle with two other bills: the 2008 budget, and a law on amnesty for prisoners, including individuals suspected of insurgency activities but held without charge. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, leading newswires and US papers have reported this as a “compromise between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds”, where each community supposedly favoured one particular law! Nothing could have been further from the truth. The amnesty law was called for in particular by some Sunni parties as well as by the (Shiite) Sadrists, some of whom later complained that the law was not comprehensive enough. The law for the governorates was not a “Shiite” demand, but a project that was sought by a broad alliance of groups which all had various motives for supporting it. Opponents of federalism – Shiites and Sunnis alike – have seen it as a framework in which the existing governorates can be given real powers and the holding of provincial elections can be accelerated. This explains why parties like the (Sunni Islamist) Tawafuq, the (Shiite Islamist) Sadrists and Fadila and the (secular) Wifaq and Hiwar have cooperated on the bill. They have faced resistance from ISCI and the two biggest Kurdish parties with regard to the demand for an elections timeline, but these anti-centralisation parties, for their part, also see a potential in the law, by pushing for a maximum reduction of the powers of the central government in those areas of Iraq where their hopes for outright federalism are unlikely to be shared by the local population. (On this subject: The bill has nothing to do whatsoever with the formation of federal regions! That law was passed in October 2006, but several leading news agencies yesterday erroneously described the governorates law as an “important step” towards the federalisation of Iraq, and one headed by the supposedly pro-federal “Shiite” parties…) Finally, parties representing all communities have realised the importance of passing a budget, although in this case an open “ethnic” dimension did materialise: the Kurdish demand for a 17% share of the federal budget has been criticised as being too high and out of touch with demographic realities; the compromise solution of a promised new percentage calculation for next year’s budget survived in parliament but was nevertheless criticised by some non-Kurdish parties later on.

All in all, Iraqi criticism of the adoption of the bills has focused not so much on substance but rather on the procedure adopted by linking the three pieces of legislation in a single package. Critics see this as unconstitutional and a way of circumventing a more thorough debate about the Kurdish demands in particular – which probably passed because the two other bills to some extent mollified misgivings among parties with Iraqi nationalist agendas. Still, the passage of the governorates law means that the all-important issue of provincial elections is now firmly back on the agenda, and this cannot but have a positive effect on Iraqi politics. Hopefully, it will also involve more cross-sectarian politics of the kind witnessed in the Iraqi parliament over the past few weeks but so systematically overlooked by the Western press.

For more on the governorates law, see The Law on the Powers of Governorates Not Organised in a Region: Washington’s “Moderate” Allies Show Some Not-So-Moderate Tendencies

 

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