Iraq's federalist project reflects a resurgent sectarian conflict

There's new support for federalism in Iraq, but this is not a healthy sign.

There was a time when all Washington policy-makers wanted to see in Iraq was a pro-federal movement among the minority Sunni Arab population. Back in 2005, at the time of the drafting of the new constitution, the Bush administration worried that scepticism towards federalism among Sunnis might torpedo the whole constitutional referendum. (It almost did.) In 2007, at the height of the "soft partition" debate in Washington, then-Senator Joe Biden made several enthusiastic attempts at enlisting Sunni support for federalism, but to no avail.

Similarly, when the Akkaz gasfield in Anbar province first made headlines in 2007, it was US generals, rather than Sunni Iraqis themselves, who spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of energy development in the Sunni-majority region.

Today, finally, Sunni interest in federalism exists in Iraq. In fact, it exists in several forms. Since 2010, pro-federal movements have been noted in both Anbar and Nineveh governorates. But most substantially, there is now a formal request from the governorate council in Salahaddin, the home province of Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein, for a referendum to be held on a federal status for the governorate.

If successful, the referendum would put Salahaddin on par with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is the only existing federal region in Iraq as of today. In theory, the request for a referendum should be honoured automatically and immediately by the central government, but similar requests from two Shiite-majority governorates (Basra and Wasit) have been ignored by Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.

The Sunni discovery of federalism in Iraq has taken place not as the result of a sudden realisation of the beauty of local government, but rather as response to a process of increased marginalisation and even humiliation at the level of the central government.

A keyword in this respect is "de-Baathification". Iraq has a de-Baathification law from 2008 aimed at regulating the access of officials of the former regime to positions in today's bureaucracy. With the exception of the security sector, the law in itself is relatively permissive, allowing reinstatement of most officials except those who were in the top echelons.

The problem is the way it is applied, as well as the substantial amount of extra-judicial de-Baathification that is taking place in Iraq. Since the run-up to the parliamentary elections of March 2010, the pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist parties have propelled anti-Baathism to the forefront in several illegal variants, including attempts to sack Sunni members of the Iraqi bureaucracy that have a Baathist past but whose professional reinstatement is covered by the de-Baathification law of 2008.

Conversely, Shiites with a Baathist past are generally left untouched, and even continue to serve in positions in the security sector from which they should have been removed according to the law.

This played at least some role in the latest federalism bid in Salahaddin, alongside complaints relating to the general economy of the governorate. Shortly before the bid was launched in late October, a number of university officials in the province were sacked with reference to allegations about a past in the secret services of Saddam Hussein. Days later, much of Iraq was engulfed in a massive security sweep with hundreds of arrests in which vague accusations of Baathism again were used as a rationale by the government.

The recent pro-federal current in Sunni majority-areas of Iraq is not a reflection of any positive political trend in the country. Rather than representing a linear trend of progress since 2007, it is testimony to how politics have retrogressed since 2009 after having first recovered from the sectarian strife of the preceding years. In 2009, Mr Al Maliki championed a return to more centralist policies that was hailed by Sunnis and Shiites alike as a sign of Iraq bouncing back from the sectarian strife that had almost created a civil war between 2005 and 2007. In 2009, non-sectarianism and anti-federalism went hand in hand.

Rather, it is the rapid downwards trend in Iraq since the parliamentary elections in 2010 that has prompted some Sunnis to think in terms they themselves swore they would never employ just a few years ago. The secular Iraqiyya party - which enjoys a particularly solid support base in Sunni-majority areas - came first in those elections, but has been unhappy with the way the post-election process has distributed power in the new Iraqi government.

In the broad "Arbil framework" that led to the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010, Iraqiyya accepted many promises from Mr Al Maliki that were bound to be problematic because they were in conflict with the Iraqi constitution - this included the notion of a so-called national council for high policies to be chaired by Ayad Allawi, Iraqiyya's leader, as a consolation prize in lieu of the premiership. To date, the strategic council has yet to be implemented (or, for that matter, legislated), and the key defence ministry that was similarly promised to Iraqiyya remains in the hand of a Maliki ally.

To some extent, the latest pro-federal developments in Salahaddin probably reflect opportunism among local politicians similar to that elsewhere in Iraq. But they are also an expression of sheer exasperation with the political process in Sunni-majority areas.

Mr Al Maliki may have one last chance to win significant Sunni support by settling the question of the security ministries including the defence portfolio in a timely fashion, but time is running out. His initial response has been dangerously reminiscent of the vaguely camouflaged anti-Sunni political rhetoric used by Shiite hardliners prior to the last parliamentary elections. Unless Mr Al Maliki can stand up against such tendencies, he cannot be prime minister for all of Iraq.

Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at