Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Major points in the federalism-and-oil debate are still undetermined

Historian Reidar Visser has made available an 18-page draft of an essay on "Basra Crude, the Great Game of Iraq's 'Southern' Oil", which will be published in a final form by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI in Norwegian) next month. It is always an event when he publishes, because all of a sudden the picture comes more into clearer focus and loses that disturbingly vague quality of an out-of-focus satellite photo that characterizes a lot of what we generally have to work with.

The major missing facts, in broad terms, are these: (1) The vast concentration of Iraqi oil reserves are in the governates of Basra and two neighboring governates. The rest of the supposedly "oil-rich south" is actually relatively oil-poor. (2) In oil-rich Basra and the surrounding governates, SCIRI is weak and the Fadhila party (Shiite and close to the Sadrists) is strong. (3) There is a lot of uncertainty about what the final, definitive oil law will lay down with respect to the likely competition between a one-governate (or few-governates) "federal region" that might be favored by the dominant Fadhila forces on the one side, and the SCIRI project for a big nine-governate federal region on the other side. (4) It is equally uncertain whether local Basra opinion will side with a one-governate "region", or will instead lean to the Iraqi-nationalist position espoused by the oil-workers union and others.

In other words, there are still key parts of the legislation (for instance powers of governates vis-a-vis powers of "regions") that aren't decided or at least aren't know with certainty; and even if they were, it is by no means certain how the interplay between Fadhila-localism, union-based nationalism, and SCIRI big-region ambitions, will play out when and if the law is passed. (It is scheduled for presentation to parliament in March, Visser says).

These are some of the issues and conflicts that have been so well-obscured by the corporate media (and which persons like myself haven't done such a great job of unearthing either). Visser discusses how these conflicts have been developing since the Samarra bombing of February 2006, a date he takes as a benchmark for the launching of the federalism-for-the-sake-of-security theme. SCIRI appears to have been the more successful at maneuvering on the national level, Visser notes, but one of his main points is that the way the federalism legislation seems to be set up, it is local referendums that will be decisive, and locally in and around Basra, SCIRI has not been doing well.

Another highlight of the essay is Visser's finding of wilful blindness on the part of Democrats who support the Biden three-part federalism proposal, but rather than try to summarize any further, I think the only alternative people have is to read the whole essay, which in only 18 pages long, although you do have to go slowly and carefully through it.


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