Tanya Gilly-Khailany on Shiite Federalism

August 24, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:



Federalism—the division of power between regional governments and Baghdad—is among the most controversial issues in Iraq’s new constitution. Tanya Gilly-Khailany, director of democracy programs at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit research organization, discusses the demands of Shiite and Kurdish leaders for more federalism in the south and north of Iraq and believes “the local population is best suited to govern itself.”

Why are some Shiites calling for a semi-autonomous state in the south of Iraq?

They believe it would create a balance in the country, since everyone should be entitled to form their own regional entities, not just the Kurds [in northern Iraq]. Now the Shiites are calling for nine out of Iraq’s eighteen provinces to be part of this southern federal region. But we must remember the southern provinces do not have the proper institutions in place; they don’t have a parliament as the Kurds do, nor the same government organizations. According to some religious Shiite leaders, the region’s oil wealth is for all Iraqis, but there was a proposal from some of these same leaders who want 90 percent of Basra’s oil wealth to stay in the region.

Does the newly written constitution resolve this issue?

The latest text of the constitution says that everyone in Iraq should have an equal share to its natural resources and wealth, which tells us the issue of oil wealth is at an acceptable level for all.  

Is the Shiites’ request motivated more by economic or religious issues?

Personally, I believe it’s religious. The Islamists believe having an autonomous region in the south is the best way to assert their power and keep in place their upper hand in these regions. Of course, Basra, having one of the biggest oil wells in the world and the only open seaport that connects Iraq to the rest of the world, would prove very profitable for them as well.

What are the arguments against granting Shiites greater autonomy?

The Sunnis argue that an autonomous region in the south threatens the territorial integrity of the Republic of Iraq. Secular Shiites fear this might grant excessive power to religious parties.

Is the issue of federalism the same for the Kurds?

For them, I believe it is more of a precautionary mechanism than anything else. They want to make sure they are the ones governing their lives and are not subjected to genocide and ethnic cleansing, as was the case under the many different [previous] Iraqi governments. The Kurds also want to go a little bit beyond what they have now. Yes, they want a decentralized Iraqi government and feel that laws pertaining to the Kurds should be passed by a Kurdish parliament that knows their society and culture best. But they also want a reversal of the Arabization process that took place under Saddam Hussein, where in many Kurdish cities, including [oil-rich] Kirkuk, Kurds were evicted and Arabs from the south and center of Iraq were brought in to change the demographics of the area.

You hear a lot about Kirkuk and Kurds’ claims to the city. Do they primarily want the profits from oil?

To the Kurds, Kirkuk is not about oil. It’s a city historically in Kurdistan, where they have lived for centuries; they were kicked out of their homes by force and had their livelihoods destroyed. It’s the place of their ancestors that they want to go back to. It has more of a sentimental value. Yes, Kirkuk has a big oil field, but I don’t think that’s the main motivating factor; and besides, it’s not an infinite supply of oil.

But aren’t Iraq’s Shiites also motivated by sentimental reasons? After all, they too were oppressed by Saddam Hussein.

Yes, but it’s interesting that [Shiites in the south] have less freedom now and are more afraid of speaking out because of some of these extremist entities who hold so much power and try to enforce sharia [traditional Islamic] law. For example, a while ago some students from the University of Basra had a mixed picnic and members of a religious militia attacked and killed one of the students.

Would federalism rein in the Shiite and Kurdish militias?

They will mostly be integrated into the Iraqi army. For example, in the case of the peshmerga [Kurdistan’s 100,000-strong security force], they would be part of a special Iraqi brigade but would receive orders from Kurdistan’s regional government, since they are stationed in the north, not in the center or south of Iraq. Shiite militias such as the Badr Brigade will be fully integrated into the Iraqi army and will receive orders from the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

Are you concerned Iraq could come apart if these regions are granted too much autonomy?

Definitely not. I think the [federalism] issue’s being overblown. All the sides have reaffirmed their commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq. It won’t mean the disintegration of Iraq. The Kurds are smart enough to realize, at this point in time, it’s better for them to remain a part of Iraq. The Shiites will not break away either, since they have a high sense of Iraqi nationalism. 

So you think the Kurds and Shiites are using this issue as a bargaining chip?

Yes and no. For one, the notion of federalism has been agreed to by all different sides since, I think, 1991 or 1992, at the first opposition meeting that took place when the Iraqi National Congress [INC] was formed. One of the things they agreed on is that [federalism] should have been automatically included [in the constitution]. But mostly it’s the Sunnis who have had the hardest time with the notion of federalism, by not understanding what the term means. For example, they were happy to switch the word “federalism” with the word “united.”  

What are the main advantages of federalism?

Federalism is a mechanism by which different people are given a degree of autonomy and self-rule within a united structure. Therefore, one of its biggest advantages is it ensures Iraq will remain a united country. We have to understand that Iraq is a very diverse country with many religions and cultures. Also, a lot of people are not willing to go back to the times of Saddam Hussein, when all things were dictated by the center.

Is federalism popular among most Shiites in the south?

The sense I have is there’s a disconnect between the Shiite populace and the Islamist parties. If the general population looked at the issue of federalism economically, they would see that they’d benefit more from a federal arrangement. Others might think [if they’re granted more regional autonomy] they may not be persecuted by the state, so they see it as form of security blanket. But the biggest problem I’ve noticed in Iraq is people don’t fully understand what federalism means.

So you sound very much in favor of some form of regional federalism.

I’m very much for a confederation of these different regions and provinces, since I believe the local population is best suited to govern itself. These regions should go about their own business and just be loosely connected to a federal government. Under the current conditions, it won’t be too bad for the Kurds, but it would have been better to have more rights granted to them. In the south, if the Shiites want to come together to form a federal state, I support it also, but it must be the vote of the people and not imposed on them.

But couldn’t this region mirror Iran’s government, a theocratic-style Islamic state?

No, because most Iraqis do not associate themselves with Iran or its culture. The model I predict we’ll have is something closer to Indonesia or Malaysia. That is, it will be a democracy, but the constitution will have language that supports Islam.

More on:




Top Stories on CFR


For many policymakers, economic sanctions have become the tool of choice to respond to major geopolitical challenges such as terrorism and conflict.


The Trump administration has declared China a currency manipulator, but what that means for the ongoing trade war is far from clear.

Women and Economic Growth

The education gender gap costs the world between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in human capital. U.S. aid programs need to equip girls and women to participate in the modern digital economy.