Richard J. Regan
What a postwar Iraqi government might look like
American voters communicated a clear message to the Bush administration in the November 2006 elections: withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as possible. Should a Democratic candidate be elected president this coming November, he or she would almost certainly draw down U.S. forces in Iraq as a prelude to complete withdrawal. Another Republican president, facing political pressure and the high cost of continued military involvement in Iraq, would probably do much the same. Facing this reality, Iraqi leaders should seriously consider adopting a federal system of government to replace their current political structure, a weak unitary state.

Three different structures for Iraq are under discussion: a unitary state, complete partition and a federal system. The Bush administration, most academic specialists and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group favor a unitary state. Many others, however, including Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, favor partitioning Iraq into three independent nations (Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish). Senator Joseph Biden, a former presidential candidate, and others have proposed something in between: a loose federation formed by three autonomous regions (Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish). In late September 2007, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution in favor of a federal system of government for Iraq. Kurdish groups and one Shiite party endorsed the resolution, but the Iraqi government, Sunni Arabs, and most Shiites condemned it.

What would a federal solution entail? Any attempt to create a federal system for Iraq requires that a number of theoretical and practical issues be spelled out and explored. In a confederal union, for example, each region would be sovereign and could unilaterally veto collective action, much like the early years of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, or like nations with veto power in the U.N. Security Council. In a federal union, however, with sovereignty divided among the federal government and local regions, both the central government and the local regions would be supreme in their respective spheres of jurisdiction. This is the system of the United States under the Constitution. A confederal union would need to negotiate bilateral or trilateral cooperative agreements among regions and would need no structural arrangements except to facilitate specific agreements. By contrast, a federal union needs a permanent structural framework.

Distributing Power

Any federal system of government poses questions about which powers belong to the central government, which to the regions, and which are shared by both but subject to federal supremacy. Some powers, including authority over foreign relations, war and tariffs, typically would be part of the national sovereignty of the federal government. The federal government would also have power over currency, banking and interregional and international transportation systems. Some powers, such as regulation of commerce, could be shared with local regions though subject to federal supremacy. But the so-called police powers (regarding domestic peace and security, health, welfare and morals) should be reserved exclusively to regional authorities. While the Iraqi federal government could use regional militias to secure international borders, it would need a centralized army, navy and air force to defend the nation against potentially aggressive neighbors. As a minority, Sunni Arabs would worry about the composition and stationing of such armed forces, but international borders and reserve areas could be federalized, and federal troops could be prohibited from entering regional territory except when necessary to enforce federal law or when a regional executive requested their assistance.

How could such a federation resolve internal disputes? The United States and other federal systems typically rely on a supreme court; the system is buttressed by a general consensus concerning the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Whether this is possible in Iraq is doubtful at best. One possibility would be a council composed of an equal number of representatives from all three regions; the council could consider the constitutional objections of regions against federal laws or actions, and of the federal government against regional laws or actions.

Authority and Individual Rights

Under the present Iraqi constitution, the system of government is parliamentary. Executive power is vested in a prime minister elected by and responsible to the parliament. This ought to remain the form of government in a federal system, for three reasons. First, it conforms to the pre-1958 tradition in Iraq under British rule and the monarchy. Second, it would be difficult to elect an executive president acceptable to Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Third, an executive president could more easily become a dictator than could a prime minister.

The current constitution mandates that members of parliament be elected from multimember districts by proportional representation. This should also continue in a federal system, perhaps with a threshold requirement for a party to acquire representatives in parliament. Legislators elected in this fashion would represent more diverse interests and make it more difficult for a sectarian Shiite majority to dominate the parliament. The counterargument that proportional representation could result in a weak and unstable government is not particularly strong, since the very purpose of an Iraqi federal government would be to limit central authority by restricting its powers.

A federation with minimal powers would not have a federal bill of rights guaranteeing individual rights against laws or actions by the regional governments. Such legislation would involve the federal government in the internal affairs of the regions and, in the fragile political environment in Iraq, invite armed conflict. Moreover, secular Iraqis and strict religious Muslims disagree about enforcing some elements of Islamic moral code. The federal government, of course, must enforce voting rights in federal elections, but the definition and enforcement of individual rights should otherwise be left to the regions to determine. However much libertarians may regret this, it is politically necessary in the present circumstances. It is worth remembering that the original U.S. Bill of Rights did not guarantee individual rights against laws or actions by state governments.

For regional boundaries, a majority vote in each of the existing provinces could determine to which region each would belong, subject to any readjustments of the borders the regions may agree to bilaterally.

Baghdad would be a special case, because although the capital is within the Sunni Arab region and its population is predominately Sunni Arab, it also has a large Shiite population, and Shiite militias patrol a quarter of the city. Baghdad could be constituted as a federal district after the model of the District of Columbia in the United States, Ottawa in Canada or Canberra in Australia. The federal army would be responsible for Baghdad’s overall security, and local elected officials would be responsible for ordinary municipal services. This would be a tough sell even to moderate regional Sunni Arabs, because the army would be dominated by Shiites; but the local administration would be dominated by Sunni Arabs, and Baghdad’s Sunnis would elect most of its representatives to the federal parliament. It may be easier to sell this plan to moderate Shiites, because it would provide greater security to nonmilitant Shiites in Baghdad.

Sharing Oil Revenues

The allocation of revenue from royalties on exported oil remains a key matter of dispute between the regions established by the present Iraqi constitution. Both the Kurdish and Shiite regions have vast oil deposits, while the Sunni region has few known reserves. The Sunni Arabs want the nation to control oil production so that their region can share in the oil revenues. The Kurds and Shiites want unrestricted control over oil production in their respective regions, and many of them are unwilling to share oil revenues with the Sunni region, although they might be willing to allocate a portion of those revenues to the federal government. How much the Kurds and Shiites will actually concede to the nation is unclear, despite provisions in the existing constitution.

In a loose federal system, each region would control its own oil production and could extract royalties as it chose (and the market allowed) but could not favor its own regional customers. Regional royalties on exported oil would be over and above the royalties the federal government levied to support federal expenditures. An independent commission of experts representing the regions equally would be necessary to regulate limits on production to conserve resources and limit regional royalties to assure marketability. The Kurdish and Shiite regions would benefit from the royalties they received, and the Sunni Arab region would benefit from the common domestic oil market. If oil reserves should be discovered in the Sunni Arab region, the Kurdish and Shiite regions would then also benefit from them.

An Uncertain Future

There are only two alternatives to a federal system of government for Iraq: a unitary state or partition. A unitary state might have been possible if the post-Saddam occupation had been better planned, organized and executed. At this point, though, sectarian and regional rivalries have been unleashed, and the survival of a unitary state would require an active U.S. military presence for many years to come. It is doubtful that the American electorate would tolerate such a solution.

The Kurdish region of Iraq, which is already operating de facto as an autonomous entity, is relatively stable, despite rival factions and a large minority of Arabs and other non-Kurds in areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk. In the Shiite region, minority populations are small and unlikely to incite civil strife. The Sunni Arab region, however, is currently beset by a number of insurgent groups, principally Baathists, members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and extremists intent on restoring Sunni dominance in a unitary Iraqi state. A federal system may make this situation even less stable in the short term, but the obstacles to stability under a federal system would be much the same as those now confronting the Iraqi government.

Samuel Johnson once remarked that the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight causes a man to concentrate powerfully. So, too, the prospect of the imminent departure of active U.S. forces from Iraq should encourage moderate Iraqis to replace their weak unitary state with a federal system of government.

If the current unitary state remains the prescribed form of government, a de facto partition will likely ensue when U.S. forces depart, a move that may be only a year or two away. Sunni Arab insurgents and militias on all sides would be emboldened, and the Iraqi army would have to confront the insurgents and militias alone. Army morale could collapse, leading to widespread disobedience and desertions. At that point, power would devolve from the national government to political leaders and militia forces in each region, followed by massive Shiite and Sunni population shifts, which are already under way in some areas. An intraregional conflict could escalate into an interregional war. Neighboring Syria and Iran would be tempted to intervene to aid Sunni Arabs and Shiites, respectively. Moreover, an Iranian alliance with the Shiites would threaten the security of moderate regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf emirates. It would also threaten the existence of Israel, especially if Iran develops a capacity for nuclear weapons and longer-range missile systems. The United States and other Western nations would need to act vigorously to prevent such a scenario, but having intervened once militarily and paid a heavy price, the United States would not likely do so again, despite the disastrous consequences of partition for the people of Iraq; nor would any other nation or coalition likely intervene.

Before American military withdrawal begins in the next few years, Iraq must face the political problem of how to establish a lasting governmental system that can hold the country together. The current model of a unitary state is no longer viable, because it lacks effective compromise on the distribution of executive power and the allocation of economic resources. In the current atmosphere of mutual distrust, federalism is the only alternative to partition for Iraq. Those responsible for the future of Iraq will, one hopes, perceive this and act accordingly.

Richard J. Regan, S.J., is emeritus professor of political science at Fordham University in New York City.


Richard Kemmer | 2/24/2008 - 3:45pm
"American voters communicated a clear message to the Bush administration in the November 2006 elections: withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as possible." Huh? This is a very interesting piece of nonsense. When was anyone in the Administration running for office in 2006? Approximately one-third of the Senate and all of the House were up for election. No one from the Bush administration was up for election. Therefore, no message could have been sent. Father Regan needs seriously to re-read his information on the US Government. There were 435 Representatives and 33 (or was it 34?) Senators up for election in these races. The Executive branch had no officials running for office in the last election; there was no message that could have been on the ballot.