Recentralization Imperils Iraq’s Stability And Fuels Regional Tensions – Analysis


By Mohammed A. Salih

(FPRI) — Iraq is at a pivotal juncture, diverging from its post-2003 vision of a federated state as pro-Iranian Shia groups in Baghdad aggressively drive recentralization. This transformation is most evident in Baghdad’s aggressive attempts to erode the federal status of Kurdistan, Iraq’s sole autonomous region. 

This divergence from the post-2003 vision is a departure from the original intent. The Iraqi Constitution, ratified by popular vote in 2005, was built upon earlier agreements among factions opposing Saddam Hussein’s regime. It aimed to establish federalism as a foundational mechanism to prevent past tragedies and construct a diverse state where power did not concentrate within a single group or figure’s hands. The Constitution’s Article 119 permitted the formation of autonomous regions composed of one or more provinces. In practice, however, there emerged an asymmetrical, skewed, and deformed federal system, with the Kurdistan Region (KR) in the north as the sole autonomous entity in the country.

As the ruling Shia groups in Iraq have grown increasingly secure in their dominance, they have systematically and incrementally deviated from this original vision. They have actively thwarted the emergence of federal regions in Sunni-dominated areas and, with Iran’s support, are now chipping away at Kurdistan’s federal status. This has occurred through a range of economic, security, and legal measures aimed at triggering the eventual collapse of KR. If these efforts succeed, it would effectively dismantle the country’s federal character, paving the way for a monopolization of state power and resources by pro-Iranian groups, who may resort to force to maintain their newfound control. 

Historical Background

The horrors of life under the Ba’ath regime’s brutal dictatorship, from unprecedented communal marginalization and numerous mass graves to adventurous and highly destructive regional wars, compelled Saddam Hussein’s opposition, particularly the Shia and Kurdish groups, to re-imagine the state in a radical fashion so as to create structural barriers to possible repeats of the tragic past. This vision played a pivotal role in shaping the 2005 Constitution, which sought to transform Iraq into a federative state, marking a rapture with the prior character and function of the state since its foundation by British and French colonial powers after World War I. 

The Iraqi federalism was, thus, strategically designed to counter the historical pattern of centralized dictatorships that had thrived on controlling the country’s natural resources, the lifeblood of its rentier economy. This new structure would feature multiple autonomous regions rather loosely united under a federal government in Baghdad. The Constitution endowed each region with extensive powers to manage its internal affairs, including oil and gas production, security, and local governance. The federal government, characterized by a complex system of checks and balances, was devised primarily to act as a bridge between autonomous regions and advance shared interests both nationally and internationally, especially in financial, defense, and foreign policy matters.

Kurds had a vested interest in demanding a decentralized state that respected their particularism, given their historical experiences and exclusion from Iraq’s Arab national identity. But major Shia parties, particularly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also backed a federative system and, at times, spoke of establishing two federal regions in the predominantly Shia-populated provinces of southern Iraq. However, as Shia political factions gained confidence in their post-2003 dominance, thanks to their numerical majority and the election system that gave them the upper hand in forming governments and controlling state resources, they began to backtrack from their commitment to federalism.

The Forbidden Sunni Arab Federalism and Undermining Kurdish Autonomy 

As US troops initiated their withdrawal from Iraq, the Sunni population found themselves vulnerable to the increasingly sectarian and authoritarian rule of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. With political fortunes shifting, Sunni Arab factions, originally opposed to federalism as a potential means to disintegrate Iraq, began considering federalism as a possible remedy for their marginalized status under Shia-led governance. However, efforts by provincial administrations in Sunni-dominated areas such as Salahaddin and Diyala to establish federal regions were met with strong opposition and use of force by Maliki. Under various excuses, Maliki went as far as removing three prominent Sunni proponents of a federal Sunni region from the government—Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, and Finance Minister Rafeh al-Issawi. 

Despite the pressures from Baghdad, the Sunni aspiration for a federal region has persisted. Calls for a Sunni region resurfaced in 2014, and in 2020, a group of Sunni political figures convened in the United Arab Emirates to explore the possibility of establishing a Sunni Arab region. Additionally, the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, has been in recent months advocating for a Sunni region, potentially encompassing his home province of Anbar and the neighboring Sunni-majority provinces of Nineveh and Salahaddin. Preventing Sunnis from forming federal regions is a brazen violation of the Constitution’s Article 119 and a subsequent law passed in 2006 by the Iraqi parliament that explicitly allowed the formation of such regions. Internal disunity and personality-driven disagreements within the Sunni camp have also posed significant obstacles to realizing autonomous Sunni governance—with Baghdad and Tehran playing a role in deepening intra-Sunni divisions. Overall, Sunnis remain wary of Baghdad’s dominance over their affairs, as well as the effective military and economic control exerted over their areas by various pro-Iranian armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces. Initially a rag-tag coalition of militias gaining their legitimacy from fighting the Islamic State or opposing US occupation, the Popular Mobilization Forces was legalized by the Iraqi parliament in 2016 and has become a main pillar of the Iraqi defense system ever since. 

Having successfully hindered the emergence of a Sunni federal region, the Shia-dominated government has also undermined the Kurdish federal status through a systematic three-pronged strategy involving economic, legal, and security measures. Baghdad pursued an economic strangulation policy as early as  2014 when Maliki suspended federal budget payments to Kurdistan due to its independent oil sales in international markets. Although the Iraqi Constitution does not clearly define the powers of the federal and regional governments regarding oil production and marketing, Maliki claimed that Kurdistan had no such right and resorted to collective punishment by cutting off the entire budget share for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), even though KRG’s oil sales fell far short of covering its expenditures, particularly salaries of civil servants and retirees. It is important to highlight that, despite the KRG’s agreement in April of this year to hand over its entire oil output to Baghdad for marketing, the Iraqi government continues to occasionally allocate only a partial share of the KRG’s budget. This strategy appears aimed at fostering popular discontent among Kurds against the KRG, particularly in light of KRG leaders’ widespread corruption, and deepening intra-Kurdish divisions, to potentially precipitate the collapse of the KRG entity. 

Since February 2022, the Shia-dominated Federal Supreme Court, an institution with questionable legal foundations and constitutional authority, has led Baghdad’s efforts to weaken Kurdistan through a series of rulings. These rulings included declaring the KRG’s oil sector and sales illegal and dissolving the Kurdish parliament, creating a critical governance vacuum in Kurdistan. In addition to the economic and legal measures, pro-Iranian armed factions and Tehran have adopted an aggressive security approach in the last couple of years. Under various pretexts, the Iranian military and Iranian-aligned Iraqi armed groups have launched multiple ballistic missile and drone attacks at targets in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2021—with the latest incident occurring on October 21, 2023. Iran has also used a recent security agreement with the Iraqi government, now dominated by groups with close ties to Iran, to further undermine KR’s security, with the likely aim of eventually deploying Iraqi security forces within KR territory—an unprecedented development, if it happened, since de facto Kurdish autonomy in 1991. 

Domestic Consequences of (Re)Centralization 

The prospect of recentralizing the Iraqi state may appear to some policymakers and observers in Washington and elsewhere as a potential means to stabilize a country that has long been plagued by conflict. This seemed to be the favored approach during the battle against the Islamic State when Washington and European nations backed then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to promote cross-sectarian and unified Iraqi politics. They even did not object to Abadi collaborating with the Iranian Quds Force and associated Iraqi militias to nullify the results of the Kurdish independence referendum. However, a sober examination of Iraq’s recent history reveals that such a course of action is not only misguided but could also serve as a catalyst for further turmoil as long as any notion of uniting Iraq is based on empowering one community’s political forces against others. 

While Shia-majority provinces are governed by Shia political groups through provincial administrations and councils, Shia elites also wield a great deal of influence over the Sunni and Kurdish-majority provinces to the north by utilizing the federal government in Baghdad as a means to control and shape their destinies. However, due to demographic disparities and a prevailing power imbalance, Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups find themselves devoid of any meaningful role in the internal politics of Shia-majority provinces. In addition, they find themselves increasingly marginalized in the administration of provinces where their own constituents make up the majority. The ongoing trend toward recentralization and monopolization of power in Shia hands, threatens to erode meaningful Kurdish and Sunni Arab control over their local affairs and diminish their influence in federal-level decision-making in Baghdad. 

Compounding these concerns is the fact that the current push for recentralization is spearheaded by Iran-aligned groups in Baghdad (though other groups, such as the Sadrist Current or the more liberal Shia support the recentralization, too). Given the profoundly sectarian history of these forces, particularly their actions against Sunnis between 2004 and 2017, their authoritarian approach, and their bellicose behavior toward Kurds in recent years, this development only serves to heighten the anxieties of Sunni and Kurdish constituencies and elites. The practical reshaping of Iraq in accordance to a conception of Shi’ism as a state ideology, evident in the behavior of dominant government forces through their involvement in extraterritorial conflicts and the allocation of state resources to Shia religious events, will only further fuel the sense of alienation from the state among the majority of Sunni Arabs and Kurds (most of whom are Sunni Muslims, too).

This heightened marginalization not only paves the way for the resurgence of centrifugal political tendencies but also raises the specter of violent resistance as a means, down the road, to counter the concentration of power within a Baghdad that is dominated by Shia groups. While in the past, the Kurds were primarily the ones to resist the centralized state in Iraq, this time around, a broader coalition of Kurdish and Sunni factions appears to be challenging such a trajectory, alarmed by the direction and intent of Shia factions in Baghdad. Indeed, major Kurdish and Sunni groups coordinated their moves in joining the negotiations with Shia groups to form the current government. In sum, the implications of recentralization for domestic stability in Iraq are substantial, with extremist groups, particularly jihadist organizations, poised to exploit these developments in the medium to long term.

The Regional Ramifications of Iraq’s Internal Dynamics

Over the past half-century, Iraq’s tumultuous history has consistently demonstrated that events within its borders rarely stay confined to them. This interplay of internal dynamics and external consequences is a critical factor to consider when evaluating the future trajectory of the country.

A pivotal historical example occurred during the Kurdish revolt in the 1960s. Iran, under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, supported the Kurdish cause, ultimately leading to Tehran gaining concessions from Baghdad concerning maritime navigation and control over the Shatt al-Arab River (or Arvand Rud River, in Persian) located near the Gulf. The subsequent desire to regain control of this river was a significant driver behind Saddam Hussein’s decision to launch a bloody war against Iran in 1980, resulting in eight years of conflict with no territorial gains for Iraq.

More recently, when Maliki pursued a divisive sectarian policy towards the Sunnis and aligned Baghdad with the Tehran-Damascus axis, particularly following the US troop withdrawal in 2011, it set the stage for the rise of the Islamic State and the protracted, destructive conflict that engulfed Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

The aggressive policies of Baghdad and pro-Iran elements are compelling rival Kurdish and Sunni factions to seek foreign alliances for their strategic survival. This shift is particularly evident in the deepening military cooperation between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the dominant party in the KR, and Turkey. Ankara has established dozens of military outposts and bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, the bulk of them in the last few years.

Moreover, the growing centralization of power within Iraq, particularly under the influence of transnational groups closely aligned with Iran, carries serious implications that extend beyond Iraq’s borders. Many of these transnational Iraqi Shia armed groups, collectively known as the Muqawama or Resistance, operate both inside and outside Iraq. They are the backbone of the Popular Mobilization Forces and have political wings within the Iraqi government and parliament. These groups have a history of targeting US troops in Iraq and Syria, even launching attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and issuing threats against Israel.

Amid the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel, these groups have adopted increasingly bellicose rhetoric, including threats against the United States and Israel. They appear to have carried out attacks on US bases in Iraq on October 18 following a deadly explosion on a Gaza hospital during the preceding day. Given their past record and their alignment with Iran’s regional designs, there is a legitimate concern that their growing control over the Iraqi state and its vast resources could drag Iraq into regional conflicts in which it has no genuine interest. This would be catastrophic for a country that has still not recovered from several decades of internal and regional wars. 

To mitigate these risks and promote stability, a genuinely federated Iraqi state with multiple equal regions represented in a unifying national federal government is essential. Such a system would act as a safeguard against the monopolization of state resources by any one group and reduce the potential for regional conflicts driven by Iraq s neighbors. The ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict provides a stark illustration of this point, with pro-Iran Muqawama groups in Iraq openly supporting violence and issuing threats against the United States and Israel, while Sunni and Kurdish groups have voiced cautious stances so far to avoid implicating Iraq in the conflict.

Western countries engaging with Iraq must prioritize adherence to the Constitution. There should be a shift away from reservations about further federalization and the creation of Sunni and potentially Shia autonomous regions. These regions would help balance power within the state and ensure a more equitable distribution of authority among Iraq’s diverse communities and groups. As part of such an approach, Baghdad should be discouraged from further encroachments on KRG’s federal status and powers. 

Critics often disparage the 2005 Constitution for perpetuating a failing ethno-sectarian, power-sharing arrangement. However, the Constitution was designed as a remedial formula for Iraq’s longstanding issues and a preemptive conflict resolution mechanism that recognizes the aspirations of local populations. When faithfully implemented, it offers a framework for viable coexistence among Iraq’s various communal identities, interests, and orientations. Hence, to promote stability and regional security, it is imperative to foster a genuinely federated Iraqi state and encourage adherence to the Constitution, acknowledging that Iraq’s past experiments with centralization have often led to failure and conflict.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

About the author: Mohammed A. Salih is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Middle East Program and a researcher and journalist based in Virginia, United States. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and has written for nearly two decades on Middle Eastern affairs for international news outlets, think tanks, and academic journals.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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