By Ahmed Ali
Iraq’s election season has begun. In the midst of a security crisis in Anbar, the Iraqi government decided to form four new provinces. The decision represents the most significant administrative change in Iraq since the 1970s and has been welcomed by Iraqi Turkmens and Iraqi Christians. However, the decision is politically and legally controversial as it has been rejected by officials in Ninewa and Salah ad-Din. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to form new provinces illustrates his strategy to reset the terms for the electoral campaign, divide his opponents, and shape the post-elections environment.
On January 21, the Iraqi government announcedthe decision to convert four administrative districts into provinces. The four administrative districts include Tuz Khurmatu, locally known as Duz, located in eastern Salah ad-Din province; the Ninewa Plains area to the northeast of Mosul in Ninewa province; and Fallujah, in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The announcement stated that this decision was made “in principle” and will be followed by the formation of a committee to establish “guidelines and established standards to convert a district to a province.” The committee will be headed by the Minister of State for Provincial Affairs Turhan Mufti and representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Municipality Ministry, and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers.
In addition to these three districts, Mufti announcedthat the Council of Minister also approved a proposal to convert Tal Afar district in Ninewa into a province. Mufti, an Iraqi Turkmen, added that the Tal Afar decision was made after a proposal by Minister of Youth and Sports, Jassim Mohammed Jaafar, a fellow Iraqi Turkmen and member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance. The Iraqi government previously agreedto make the Iraqi Kurdish district of Halabja in Sulaymaniyah into a separate province on December 31 at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Halabja’s early conversion may have been a concession by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s to preempt the Iraqi Kurds before converting administrative districts that fall within the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs).
All of these districts enjoy a special status. Tuz and Tal Afar are the most contentious. Tuz district is a mixed area that includes Iraqi Turkmens, Iraqi Arabs, and Iraqi Kurds. It is geographically significant as well, given that it lies on the highway connecting northern Iraq with Baghdad. The district is also included in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that is designed to address the issue of Disputed Internal Boundaries areas (DIBs) primarily between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Since last year, the city has been the scene of sustained waves of violent attacks including Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs). Those attacks were likely carried out al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which has historically exploited ethno-sectarian tensions to exacerbate violence and ethno-sectarian confrontations. Those attacks have ledto calls by the sizeable Iraqi Turkmen population to increase efforts to establish local forces to provide protection.
Tuz was also the scene of a prolonged confrontation between the federal government Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in December 2012. There have been prior calls by Iraqi Turkmen parties in Tuz to convert it into a province, with the latest coming in Julyand November2013. Iraqi Turkmen leader, Riyadh Sari Kahya, proposed that one name of the province should the “Bayat Province,” named after the most dominant tribe in the area, the Bayati Tribe. As a preemptive measure, the Kirkuk provincial council voted on December 3 toannex Tuz to Kirkuk province, where the district administratively belonged prior to a decision by the Saddam Hussein government to annex it to Salah ad-Din in the 1970s. In a sign of disapproval, the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Turkmen members of the Kirkuk council boycottedthe Tuz voting session in December.
Tal Afar is also significant, given that it falls within the DIBs and is another ethno-sectarian mixed area. Tal Afar also became a stronghold for AQI after 2003. The district was eventually pacified and stabilized by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2005. Tal Afar includes Iraqi Shi’a Turkmens and Iraqi Sunni Turkmens. It is an area on which Iraqi Shi’a political parties and groups place a great deal of significance. In the predominantly Iraqi Sunni province of Ninewa, it is the only place with a sizeable Iraqi Shi’a population. This has led to an effort by various Iraqi Shi’a groups to compete and place resources during elections. Mohammed Taqi Mawla, who has been a proponentof converting the district into a province, is a senior figure in Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and prominent in the district. Demonstrating the district’s significance to Iraqi Shi’a groups, Iraqi Shi’a militia group Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH) openedan office in Tal Afar in September of 2012.
In contrast to Tuz and Tal Afar, the Ninewa Plains boundaries will be more complicated to define. While Tuz and Tal Afar are identified as administrative districts, Ninewa Plains is comprised of three geographic areas combining multiple administrative units. In general, the term Ninewa Plains refers to Tel Kayef, Hamdaniyah, and Shaikhan districts. Those areas are predominantly occupied by Iraqi Christians, but they also include other minority groups like Yazidis and the Shabak. Iraqi Christian political parties have had a long-standing demandto convert the area into a province, thus allowing them more freedom and authority.
Fallujah’s potential conversion into a province is more difficult to explain. The district represents the second biggest area in the sprawling province of Anbar. It is predominantly Iraqi Sunni and was the area where Iraq’s insurgency and AQI were the prevailing authorities from 2004-2008, until the establishment of the anti-AQI awakening movement in 2006. While Anbar has always enjoyed a unique status within Iraq due to its location and social tribal fabric, Fallujah is also unique within Anbar, as it is not dominated by a single tribe and has a conservative religious base. Since the beginning of the Anbar crisis in December 2013, Fallujah has been out of central government’s control, with various armed anti-government groups controllingthe city. Its inclusion in the government’s decision is likely intended to combat the appearance of ethno-sectarianism in the government’s overall decision. However, unlike the other administrative districts, there is no well-established historical demand for this decision in Anbar. The decision to include Fallujah in this decision was rejectedby the head of Anbar’s provincial council, Sabah Karhout on January 22. Prime Minister Maliki may be using it to divide the political leadership of Anbar ahead of national elections. The decision may alternately drive unity among Anbari leaders who would fundamentally oppose division of the province. In either case, the decision will create a new political opportunities for Maliki in Anbar.
The Implementation of the Decision
Despite the issuance of the decision to create new provinces, there is no clear legal mechanism to implement it. The Iraqi constitution does not contain any articles pertaining to the formation of new provinces, and other legislation such as the 2008 Provincial Powers Law (PPL) and its subsequent amendmentsin June 2013 do not address the mechanism of the formation of new areas. Therefore, this is legally and constitutionally an ad hoc effort.
The Mufti Committee will play the crucial role in determining the status of these districts and their conversion into provinces. Notably for Tal Afar’s conversion, the Iraqi government’s decision has included areference to make the decision contingent on a vote in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR). This indicates that the other conversions may include the CoR’s involvement as well. But these procedures can change since they are ad hoc.
Reactions to the Decision
The reactions to the decision have varied. It has been generally welcomedby the Iraqi Turkmens and especially for the Iraqi Christians who have been advocating for an autonomous area in the Ninewa Plains.
On the other hand, the Ninewa and Salah ad-Din provincial governments have rejected the decision. On January 23, Governor of Ninewa Atheel al-Nujaifi statedthat the approval of the government to convert the Ninewa districts of Tal Afar and Ninewa Plains is a “preemptive measure” to prevent the formation of a “united region” in Ninewa. On the same day, member of Ninewa Provincial Council Hosam al-Din al-Ayar stated that a request was submittedto the CoR to announce the Region of Ninewa consisting of three provinces, although the new provinces are not specified. This request is likely intended to counteract the government’s decision with regards to Tal Afar and the Ninewa Plains. According to Ayar, the request was signed by more than one third of council members, which fulfills the legal requirements to submit a request for a federal region.
Ayar added that the request was sent to the CoR for a vote. Despite this statement, legally the decision to announce an autonomous region has to go through the Iraqi government first, and then a referendum is required in the province to ratify the decision. This is a long-term process, and it will not take place before parliamentary elections in April 2014. Thus, the request by Ninewa’s government is likely tactical. Member of Mutahidun Mohammed Iqbal, who is from Ninewa, attributedthe central government’s decision to create new provinces to electoral motives. Furthermore, Iqbal discounted the decision, stating that there is no legal basis for it.
Iraqi Kurdish political reaction has also been extremely critical. This reaction is expected, since three of the proposed provinces border Iraqi Kurdistan’s boundaries and are areas where Iraqi Kurdish parties have spread their influence since 2003. Head of the CoR’s legal committee and Iraqi Kurdish CoR member Khalid Shwani describedthe decision as a “violation” of the laws and constitution. Shwani added that Tal Afar and Tuz are part of Article 140 and thus cannot be included until Article 140 is implemented. Furthermore, Shwani added that the decision is intended to achieve “political and electoral goals.”
The reactions of the Iraqi Shi’a political parties have been different. Senior Sadrist member of the CoR Baha al-Araji statedthat the decision is “constitutional and legal,” but came under “conditions that were not legal.” Araji also added that the approach of the April 2014 national elections is a reason for the decision. ISCI, the other major Iraqi Shi’a political party was more sympatheticto the decision, particularly with regards to Tal Afar. In one of its media outlets, al-Forat, ISCI remindedreaders of previous demands by ISCI to convert Tal Afar to a province. This statement is another example of the significance of Tal Afar for the Iraqi Shi’a parties. Sadrist member of the CoR Jawad al-Juburi has further called to convertBaghdad’s Sadr City into a province. If Sadr City is converted into a province in the future, it will allow the Sadrists a greater degree of influence through the control of local security forces and the possibility of winning more seats in the national elections allocated to Sadr City directly.
Other reactions have included calls by other groups in Ninewa to form a province. On January 23, the leader of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, Amin Farhan Jaju, announcedthat his movement had sent a request to the Council of Ministers to convert Sinjar district, where a sizeable Yazidi population resides, into a province. Jaju was also supportive of the decision by the government’s decision to convert districts in Ninewa into provinces.
Implications and Conclusions
The new provinces will not be formed before the elections. This is due to the lack of clarity about the legal and constitutional process to do so, the approach of the national elections, and the CoR’s few remaining sessions. Therefore, this decision is best viewed within the prism of the April 2014 elections and Prime Minister Maliki’s strategy to counter post-provincial elections developments that have limited the powers of the federal government.
As an electoral strategy, the decision allows Maliki to shift popular and government focus from security concerns and Maliki’s under-performance in provincial elections. The decision has already caused controversy and allowed Maliki to drive the electoral campaign agenda. The new dynamic may temporarily deflect attention from the security challenges that make Maliki appear weak. The focus on Tal Afar and Tuz allows Maliki to win some Iraqi Shi’a support and also increase his leverage with the Iraqi Kurds after the elections. Tal Afar’s inclusion will paint Maliki as the defender of the Iraqi Shi’a. Tuz’s inclusion can function as a bargaining chip after the elections, as Maliki can offer the cancelation of the decision as an incentive to the Iraqi Kurds in return for their support for his third term as Prime Minister.
The decision also allows Maliki to weaken the leading Iraqi Sunni politicians in Ninewa, governor Nujaifi and his brother, speaker of the CoR Osama al-Nujaifi. Shortly after the formation of the new Ninewa provincial council, the Ninewa provincial council authorizedgovernor Nujaifi to sign contracts with oil companies in the province. Some of the fields are projected to be in the Ninewa Plains. Thus Maliki’s decision can hinder that plan even if temporarily, raising a concern for potential oil investors. Furthermore, the decision allows Maliki to contestthe newly-amended Provincial Powers Law that allowed the provinces more authorities. Additionally, turning Ninewa into three provinces will potentially deprive it of future petrodollars if the province becomes a major oil-producing area.
The decision represents the most significant administrative change in Iraq’s history since the 1970s. Moving forward, it will be imperative to observe how other districts in Iraq will react to this decision. This is particularly true in contentious areas like Hawijah in Kirkuk, Nukhaib in Anbar, and Zubair in Basra. Maliki’s maneuver positions him well for now, but the possible unification of his political opponents may divert his momentum.
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.