While talking to Iraqi Sunnis disaffected with the Iraqi central government, it is easy to get sucked into discussions of the past: Many remain upset with the 2003 U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi Army, some complain about the way de-Baathification occurred, and many also complain about what they see as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overly sectarian policies. Few put themselves in the position of the Iraqi Shi‘ites or recognize that after centuries of oppression, Shi‘ites aren’t going to subordinate themselves again to Sunni minority rule.
The most interesting conversations revolve around the future. There is a recognition even among Sunni Arab Iraqis most disaffected by the events of the last eleven years that there is no going back to the past, and that there is no way to simply re-impose a strong Sunni general “without blood on his hands” to restore order.
That said, Sunnis do not want to be dominated by Shi‘ites, and many Sunnis and Shi‘ites are increasingly frustrated with the sectarianism. While residents of al-Anbar, Ninewa, and Salahuddin have no desire to live under al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, they also do not wish to have those from outside their respective provinces come in to restore order. Anbaris no more want to be occupied by Basrawis than Basrawis would want to be occupied by Anbaris.
Earlier this week while brainstorming about ways forward, an Anbari professional from a prominent tribe made a persuasive case for administrative federalism in Iraq. It is an idea that I first heard while teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan in academic year 2000-2001, and one which I wrote about shortly thereafter in the New York Times and in a collection of essays (see p. 44) about Iraq published shortly before the war.
The idea is simple: Rather than divide Iraq according to ethnic or sectarian characteristics as per then-Senator Joe Biden’s plan—a recipe for chaos and ethnic cleansing in mixed areas—the center of gravity of governance should devolve to each province which would be awarded a proportion of Iraq’s oil revenue according to its share of the population. At present, some money is awarded to each province according to its population, but the center of gravity remains in Baghdad and with the centralized ministries. Iraqis resent Baghdad and national political parties, however, and should not have to rely on them for every decision, especially when they are not accountable to any specific constituency. While defense, foreign policy, and oil infrastructure might be the domain of the central government, putting provincial (or even district) leaders in charge of other aspects of governance will bring government closer to the people. Moslawis will determine what happens in Mosul and they will police Mosul. The buck will stop with local politicians who will no longer be able to blame their own incompetence on Baghdad or excuse corruption by suggesting the money disappeared in Baghdad.
When the idea was debated in the months before the war, Kurdish leader Masud Barzani opposed it fiercely because he saw federalism based on provinces as undercutting his authority over the Kurdistan Region which was comprised at the time by three provinces. So be it: The Kurds can have their trans-provincial federal unit should they choose to remain inside Iraq.
And when it came to putting together Iraq’s fiscal year 2004 budget, Patrick Kennedy—Bremer’s chief of staff and administrative guru—vetoed proposals to allow governorates to develop their budgets separate from the central government because it would be administratively inconvenient, and could complicate planning for the Coalition Provisional Authority’s plans for a donor conference. In effect, for a meaningless diplomatic event, that decision undercut local representation and reinforced centralization which many Iraqis outside of the ruling party now resent. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that mistake of a decade ago, and encourage Iraqis to allow greater administrative autonomy on a provincial basis rather than on an ethnic or sectarian one.