Monday, November 8, 2010

Local Control and Democratization in Iraq

Iraq has experienced very difficult times recently. It is still without a government over 8 months since last March's parliamentary elections. Violence, while still contained, has increased throughout the country over the past several months. Especially disturbing is the random nature of many of the bombings in urban areas that are designed to disrupt efforts to return life to some form of normality. The purposeful killings of Christians on November 1, who were attending mass at Our Lady of Salvation (Sayyidat al-Najat) Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad's Karrada district, is part of a systematic and brutal effort to prevent Iraq from creating a pluralistic and tolerant society.

While the nation's political elite continues to demonstrate its inability to address Iraq's pressing problems, Iraqis at the local level are using their new found power in the form of provincial legislatures to promote issues they consider important. In this posting, I want to discuss three initiatives taken by provincial councils and other legislative bodies. One calls for allowing provinces to establish offices in Iraqi diplomatic missions abroad. The second involves an attempt to fight an increase in electricity rates mandated by the Ministry of Electricity. And the third entails protests against federal oil and natural gas policy in two of Iraq's provinces.

One of these issues, which I mentioned in a previous posting, concerns the effort of the al-Najaf Provincial Council to force the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow the province to open offices representing its commercial, educational and tourist interests in Iraqi embassies abroad. After the al-Najaf Council voted to support this effort, claiming that provinces had the constitutional right to open offices in Iraq's diplomatic missions, the Babil Provincial Council followed suit with a vote of its own.

While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have both objected to these efforts in arguing that they are not in fact allowed by the Iraqi Constitution, they point to an example of al-Najaf and Babil provinces using their new found legislative power to assert a local agenda, namely promoting their commercial and tourist interests. This is an important development since, in the Arab world, power flows from the center to the periphery, rarely the reverse.

Another example of the provincial councils using their power to try and offset that of the central government is the vote by the Karbala' Provincial Council to not accept proposed increases in electricity rates. Indeed, the local government has called upon Karbala's resident and those in administrative districts that make up the greater Karbala' region not to pay the increases.

Residents of Karbala' and the surrounding region argue that current electric supplies are sporadic and that they as consumers should not have to pay more for a service that is already in short supply. Further, local economists and businessmen argue that the increases would place an onerous burden on local industry and agriculture which are already having a difficult time competing in local and regional markets. As for the legitimate need for the Ministry of Electricity to invest in upgrading Iraq's outdated national electric grid, residents reply that the government could find ample funds if it would seriously confront the extensive administrative corruption that permeates the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Clearly, local residents are much more able to protest what they consider to be unjust actions of the central government when they are organized and have the support of local governmental institutions.

But perhaps the most impressive evidence that Iraqis in the provinces are taking their local power seriously is the vote by both the al-Anbar and the Basra provincial councils demanding that the central government consult them in the development of oil and natural gas resources in their respective provinces. Basra is the most energy rich province in Iraq while large amounts of natural gas have recently begun to be developed in al-Anbar Province. Both provinces have rejected Baghdad's unilateral actions in concluding contracts with foreign energy companies without including them in the bidding process and in the plans to develop the local oil and natural gas fields.

It is noteworthy that both Basra and al-Anbar provinces have invoked Article 112 of the Iraqi Constitution that requires that the federal government cooperate with local provinces in the development of any hydrocarbon resources. In Falluja, once the site of extensive violence and attacks against US forces (such as the killing and burning of 4 Blackwater private security guards in 2004), protests have been peaceful with demonstrators carrying placards in parades down the city's streets demanding that Iraq not sell the rights to its oil and natural gas to foreign energy consortia.

Whatever one thinks of the issues in these three cases, the use of local legislative institutions to challenge the central government's prerogatives is extremely limited in the Arab world. In Iraq, citizens elected local legislative councils throughout its Arab provinces in January 2009 and those councils are beginning to represent their constituents interests.

In the case of protests against the central government's oil and natural gas policy, we see how economic interests can cross-cut ethnoconfessional differences. al-Anbar Province is the quintessential Sunni Arab Province while Basra is predominantly Shi'ite. That these two provinces have come together around an issue that affects them both - namely the disposition of their respective hydrocarbon resources - demonstrates possible future areas of cooperation among Iraq's different ethnic groups and regions.

While Iraq continues to face enormous political, social and economic problems, not all the news is bad.

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