Basra politicians call for independence from Baghdad

Residents feels neglected and blame corrupt politicians for lack of public services

Protesters chant slogans in front of the provincial council building during a demonstration demanding better public services and jobs in Basra, Iraq, Thursday, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
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Politicians from Iraq’s southern oil producing province of Basra are calling for autonomy in a region that has endured deadly protests over political corruption and the government’s failure to provide adequate public services.

More than 20 of Basra’s provincial council members voted on Tuesday for the establishment of a federal state, the head of the council, Sabah Al Bazzouni said.

"Only 12 votes are required for an absolute majority in the council," Mr Al Bazzouni said. The vote will now be presented to the parliament in Baghdad to be put in motion, he added.

"We are now awaiting for the approval of the prime minister and the parliament, if they reject our request then it will be a disaster," Mr Al Bazzouni said.

The council also called for neighbouring provinces to join the proposed federation.

According to Article 119 of the Iraqi constitution, any of its 19 provinces can hold a referendum on independence if a petition is put forward to the parliament in Baghdad.

The petition must be  supported by 10 per cent of voters and council members.

Last July, thousands of citizens poured onto the streets demanding for clean water and proper services in a wave of unrest that saw protesters torch a number of buildings, including the Iranian consulate and the provincial council.

Residents in Basra feel neglected by Baghdad and blame corruption among officials for the lack of clean drinking water, power shortages and high unemployment rates, even though its ports account for more than 80 per cent of Iraq’s oil export revenues.

"We are paying the price for corruption, the majority of people are unemployed, nothing has changed since last year. Our situation is getting worse everyday," Ahmed Ali, a resident of Basra, told The National.

"The government in Baghdad has done nothing for us, the only that we can avoid any further devastation is through independence," Mr Ali said.

Some residents believe that federalism would grant politicians in Basra the power to run the city and resolve its outstanding issues.

“I will never give up, today or tomorrow, I will keep up supporting Basra until it becomes a federal region as the government has failed in running the country,” Muhannad Mohsin Khudhair, a 42-year-old resident said.

A federal system depends on the direct management of human resources and funds, Mohammed Al Qurainiy, a political activist in Basra said.

“Citizens will be in direct contact with federal authority and will be aware of the decisions taken that concerns the province,” Mr Al Qurainiy said.

“From 2003 until now, political parties have dominated Basra’s wealth, with federalism we will keep fighting corruption and militia’s control,” he said.

Ali Kareem, a human rights activist, said:"We were disappointed by the central government when we see our city, it’s the richest city in Iraq, in natural resources and oil, but it’s so hard to get a job.”

But the calls for independence has not been supported by all.

“Federalism is a new experiment and we are not ready for it,” Safa Al Tamimi, president of Al Amin Association for Relief and Development in Basra, said.

“There is a growing fear that change will bring about conflict,” she said.

Residents in Basra have periodically called for independence since 1921 and have made repeated calls for secession but their requests have been denied by the central government in Baghdad.

The calls for independence have been compared to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a semi-autonomous part in the north of the country where a failed bid for secession in 2017 resulted in a backlash from Baghdad and diminished the region's autonomy.

Baghdad responded by seizing disputed territories held by Kurdish forces and temporarily banning international flights to the region.

As well as a lack of safe drinking water, Basra and its oil-rich province suffer from constant power cuts, a stagnant economy, poor health services, widespread corruption, unemployment and an agricultural sector devastated by drought.

Lack of transparency and unreliable governance has been at the heart of Iraq’s woes, made worse by the effects of a costly war against ISIS.

The demands for greater autonomy in Basra comes at a time where anti-government anger is increasing, following the capsizing of a ferry in Mosul that killed at least 90 people earlier this month.

The ferry, which was carrying families to an amusement park on an island in the Tigris River, was the single most deadly incident in Mosul since the city was recaptured from ISIS in 2017.