Alwaght- Recent, people has been demonstrating in Iraq's Basra province demanding for greater regional autonomy from Iraq's central government. The provincial council has recently voted to refer to a popular referendum for the matter.
Iraq politicians have taken different stances towards the bid, with its supporters arguing that autonomy will help improve people’s living conditions. The opponents, on the other side, arguing that a foreign agenda is behind the issue, say that there would be an abundance of challenges ahead of the Basra region. What is the root cause of this call? What goals do the foreign sides seek and what are the future challenges of this effort for Iraq?
Legal ground and the challenges ahead
Federalism concept entered Iraq’s constitution since 2005, but its correct adoption remains under question. According to the constitution, if a province seeks autonomy, it has to gain the approval of two neighboring provinces. The province presents its plan to two neighboring provinces and should they agree, the three provinces present to the federal government a call for a referendum. Baghdad-based government assesses the request and should there are legal grounds, it will allow a plebiscite to go ahead within three months.
The legal mechanism of the bid holds five conditions, among them the ability to provide self-security. Polls conducted in the recaptured provinces of Al-Anbar, Nineveh, and others which came under ISIS invasion show that a majority of people prefer central government-led security. In case of an autonomous government, the federal army does not intervene, except for some special conditions.
Add to this the unsuccessful experience of autonomy in the country’s Kurdish region whose autonomy only led to home division and brought threats to the nation’s territorial integrity. Divisions showed themselves when the Kurdish region held a full separation referendum that drew a strong response from Baghdad and neighboring countries.
Autonomy has been badly affecting the government’s function to introduce structural economic reforms and design development plans. The challenge that an undermined central government will lead to expanded bureaucracy and the government’s engagement in political issues and marginalization of the economic development plans is an unavoidable reality.
These issues along the intervention of foreign intelligence agencies like those of Saudi Arabia and the Israeli regime motivates many political and civil activists to see the autonomy of Basra at the present time quite inappropriate and deleterious. Some political activists in Basra seek autonomy only for living and economic intents. But foreign agents are seeking to sow differences among the southern provinces. If other provinces support the idea, in addition to the lack of economic and security capacities, there will be a struggle over which city will be the center of the autonomous region. That is what some home and foreign actors hope for.
Foreign players’ interests behind autonomism
The autonomism in Iraq in the short and long run provides the foreign actors’ interests. The agenda will break the ranks of the Shiite forces who have been playing as a major force in the Iraqi politics since 2003, the year a US invasion toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein. The fall of Baathist rule gave rise to the Shiite role-playing, including their engagement in a strong relationship with neighboring Iran and the Axis of Resistance. The US and Saudi Arabia presently take pains to crack the bond between Tehran and Baghdad.
In the long run, autonomism presents a big challenge to Iraq’s territorial integrity. The plan to break Iraq into three parts, one for the Shiites, one for the Kurds, and one for the Sunnis was raised by some political figures and their media outlets. The idea for the first time was raised by Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, in 1993. The Israeli interests take a center stage in scenarios seeking partition of Iraq and the region. After the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, the Israeli strategists concluded that the best way to realize their territorial expansion ambitions was breaking the region into smaller states and stirring rivalry between them for establishing relations with Tel Aviv. If they push for Saudi Arabia split, they will face a strong opposition. Their plans come in a neat sequence. So, they push Riyadh ahead of them in the scheme to partition Iraq by creating in it a delusion of benefiting from this plan.
Saudi Arabia secretly bought agricultural lands in Basra and established political relations with influential groups in Basra and neighboring provinces’ cities to garner support for Basra autonomy. Riyadh draws on the living demands of Basra and southern Iraqi people for its political agenda, a project that is harmful to Iraq unity and prompts the nation’s split.
But the key issue for Saudi Arabia and foreign intelligence agencies is persuading the public to approve of the creation of an autonomous region of Basra. For the first stage of the plan, they spurred popular protests using high unemployment rates and deteriorating living conditions. Al-Ahad news network of Iraq last year published voice files apparently showing Saudi intelligence service recruited a number of agents in Basra to lead the summer protests. Additionally, a five-member team led by Hashem al-Ghanemi, with links to Saudi intelligence, in July last year launched a sabotage operation in Basra electricity network in a bid to protract power outages. The operation caused popular discontent and forced the country to turn to Saudi Arabia for power supply.
What was the objective behind Basra protests fueling?
Setting up a joint operation room, the American, Saudi, and Israeli intelligence agencies implied the idea that the only way for Basra exit from its crisis is its autonomy and domination over its oil reserves and natural resources.
Backing Iraq split, Saudi Arabia seeks a weak neighbor. Another goal is the oil wealth of Basra. Basra is a big oil terminal in Iraq and interruption in its oil exports will be of benefits to Saudi Arabia which wants a bigger share of the global oil market through taking parts of Iraq share in the oil market. Furthermore, the Saudis want Iraq to transfer its oil through the Saudi Al-Ma’ajaz oil pipeline. Iraq dependence on Saudi pipeline like the dependence on power supplies can very well help Riyadh dictate its demands to Baghdad.