ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Local authorities in Iraq’s southern Basra province have threatened to break away from the central government in Baghdad and create an autonomous region of their own.
The warning comes as the country is grappling with increasing violence and Baghdad is failing to deliver basic services to the province.
In the north, Iraq’s Kurds run their own autonomous Kurdistan Region.
The idea of an autonomous Basra was rekindled by MP Wail Abd al-Latif, who told Rudaw that, “Efforts toward making Basra an autonomous region is a project and not a trump card against the central government.”
He noted that this project has been in the making for a number of years and conforms fully to the Iraqi constitution.
Just days before drafting the final version of the Iraqi constitution in 2005, the issue of a southern Shiite autonomous region caused heated divisive debate among Iraqi politicians.
An autonomous Shiite region that includes several southern provinces is considered the brainchild of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the former leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI).
Hakim advocated for a Shiite autonomous region modeled after the Kurdistan Region. However, divisions between Shiites and strong Sunni opposition defeated the project.
According to Abd al-Latif, the project has the full backing of Basra’s residents. He said that the marginalization of the province by the central government is the main reason behind it.
“Starting this month, the committee assigned with making Basra an autonomous region will take new legal steps through forming a council made up of representatives from all the towns and sub-districts of Basra,” he said.
Basra is often considered as Iraq’s lifeline, thanks to its rich oil wealth and other natural resources. It is also the country’s only gateway by sea to the outside world.
In 2010, 22 members from 35 Basra Provincial Councils signed a petition demanding Baghdad hold a referendum in the province in accordance with the Iraqi constitution, so that residents can choose if they want to remain under Baghdad or form their own autonomous government. But the demand fell on deaf ears at the prime minister’s office.
The State of Law party of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s weak performance in the April 20 provincial elections in Basra, in which the party’s seats decreased from 22 in 2009 to 16 in 2013, could help revive the idea of a Basra autonomous region.
Abd al-Latif argued that the Basra region would not resemble Kurdistan because the Kurdistan Region was already an established fact on the ground.
“If Basra became an autonomous region, it would be different from the Kurdistan Region, because the Kurdistan Region was a reality before the formation of the new Iraq and its achievements were incorporated into the Iraqi constitution,” he explained.
“The region of Basra would be compatible with the current Iraqi laws and constitution,” he said.
Jawad Bazouni, a member of parliament from Basra and a strong advocate of its autonomy bid, told Rudaw that, “the current Iraqi constitution defines Iraq as a federal country, so it is within the rights of each governorate to demand autonomy.”
Bazouni complained that for years, under various justifications, Basra’s bid for autonomy has been delayed.
Over the past several months the Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salahdeen and Diyala unilaterally declared autonomy from Baghdad, citing worsening security, unfair treatment of Sunnis and lack of services by the government. However, Baghdad dismissed the moves as “unconstitutional.”