Baghdad and Basra once again argue over distribution of resources as politicians brace themselves for protests by people tired of incessant power breakdowns in sweltering summers.

Lawmakers from the southern Iraqi province of Basra have renewed efforts to seek autonomy from the federal government, as they blame it for problems such as lingering electricity crisis in the oil-rich region. 

This week the 35-member Basra Provincial Council passed a resolution with a majority vote asking Baghdad to give the province control over its oil resources and financial affairs. 

Basra politicians have been making calls for an autonomy for more than a decade now. The constitution passed in 2005 allows provinces to seek autonomy, which would require a referendum and federal government's approval - both of which haven’t been forthcoming. 

“There is a legal ambiguity and lack of a precedent for forming autonomous regions under the current constitution, given that the Kurdistan region has been established well before,” says Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. 

The Kurdistan Regional Government in the country's north, often depicted as a success story of self-rule, was formed a decade before the political transition took place post-US invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Basra, which accounts for around two-thirds of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, is the country’s economic engine, responsible for generating around 80 percent of its revenue. It is also home to Iraq's only port from where oil is exported to international market. 

However, Basra’s oil wealth hasn’t translated into its development as joblessness remains high and people struggle to find clean drinking water and face prolong electricity outages. 

Frustrations over poor public services have led to violent protests in recent years - especially during summers like in July last year when protestors went on a rampage, vandalising government buildings. 

“Summer is coming. This is something Iraqis are saying a lot these days,” says Ahmed Tabaqchali, an Iraqi investment banker and a commentator on political affairs. 

Powerful Basra politicians are using autonomy to whitewash their own inefficiency by shifting the blame on the federal government, he told TRT World

“There is no capacity at provincial level to run the administration. Even if by some miracle they get autonomy, they won’t be able to address any of the problems.” 

Basra accounts for most of Iraq's oil production but continues to remain one of most neglected regions in the country.
Basra accounts for most of Iraq's oil production but continues to remain one of most neglected regions in the country. (AP)

Iraq has struggled to generate enough electricity to meet the soaring demand, which in summer can exceed supply by up to 50 percent.

Underinvestment in power transmission and distribution systems has further compounded the issue. 

The demand for autonomy also comes at a time when the national parliament is gearing up to hold the long-overdue provincial council elections later this year. 

“And I think many of the existing members of Basra provincial council feel threatened and they are trying to strengthen their position by calling for more autonomy,” say Ali al Mawlawi, a Baghdad-based political analyst. 

The autonomy rhetoric of Basra politicians is confined to their province as their colleagues from same parties in Baghdad parliament choose to remain silent over the issue. 

Nevertheless, the idea of autonomy has captivated many Basrawis and they have expressed their desire in different ways such as when fans of a local football team unfurled a provincial flag during a game in 2014. 

“This idea could eventually evolve into an appealing political slogan, especially as the country is preparing for upcoming provincial elections,” says Hasan of the Carnegie center. 

It’s all about hope

Earlier this year, Iraq approved its 2019 national budget of around $112 billion, it’s largest ever. Only $1.6 billion or less than 2 percent of it was allocated for Basra.  

“Petrodollar payments have been delayed to Basra and other oil producing provinces for a few years. The central government says it doesn’t have the funds,” says Mawlawi. 

A Basra politician last year claimed that Bagdad owed the province more than $45 billion. But Mawlawi doubts that number. “Even accumulation of a few year can’t be that much.”  

At the heart of autonomy dispute is a clash of varying political interests that has paralyzed the Iraqi government. 

Since last year's elections brought a coalition government to power, politicians have failed to even appoint key ministries such as defence and interior. 

That has stymied efforts to address other pressing issues such as a bloated public sector - Iraqi government is biggest employer in the country of 38 million, something that has crowded out the private sector. 

Widespread disillusionment with Iraq's old political class helped influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr become a power broker in the last elections.
Widespread disillusionment with Iraq's old political class helped influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr become a power broker in the last elections. (AFP)

The victory of the Sairoon bloc of Muqtada al Sadr, a fiery Shia cleric, in the 2018 elections, had raised hopes that the country was finally ready to leave its bloody sectarian past behind. 

Even though Sadr once led a death squad accused of killing Sunnis and American soldiers, he reinvented himself as a nationalist politician who had no qualms about aligning with communists. 

Tabaqchali says Iraq has yet to completely come out of that sectarian mindset. 

“Until very recently identity politics was name of the game as we were fighting ISIS (Daesh). But that is changing now. The dysfunction that we see is because old players are pressing all the buttons and pulling all the levers but nothing is happening.”

The failure of the parliament to deliver even as Iraq’s oil sales to the  international market have hit a record high, raking in billions of dollars,  will bring politicians under scrutiny, he says. 

“So I am hopeful. The optimist always hopes for something right to happen.” 

Source: TRT World