| Iraq's long-gestating Provincial Powers
Act -- passed by Parliament last month and approved March 19 by
the country's three-member presidential council -- sets the stage
for Iraqis to hold local elections by October.
Hailed as "an important step" by the United States,
the law's passage marked a turnabout by one of its strongest critics
-- Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a member of one of the main
Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council.
sits on the presidential council along with Vice President Tariq
Hashimi, a Sunni, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. The council
must approve all legislation passed by Parliament.
Mahdi, who said the law was unconstitutional, rejected it at
first. He later reversed his decision and approved the law after
being given assurances by senior members of Parliament that some
of his concerns -- most notably, the central government's ability
to sack local governors -- would be addressed in the future, he
The new law is seen as a victory for advocates of a strong central
government in Iraq since -- in addition to setting an Oct. 1 deadline
for new provincial elections -- it stipulates the dominance of
federal law over local law, analysts say.
"It's one of the most important laws passed in recent years,"
said Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi consultant for the American Friends
Service Committee. "It's as important as passing the Constitution.
It draws the line between those who want to weaken the central
government and turn Iraq into a confederation and those who want
to keep Iraq strong."
There are 18 local provinces in Iraq. Until now, their authority
was ambiguous. The Iraqi central government controls 99 percent
of the everyday bureaucracy -- everything from picking up the
trash to school administration.
This new law, which does little to clear up what roles the local
and national authorities will play in those bureaucracies, does
establish what the local hierarchy will look like, including the
role of governors, provincial councils and other sub-groups. Some
analysts say it further legitimizes the country's political process
by giving the local authority more of a voice than it previously
"If democracy is going to be taken seriously in the Iraqi
context, there has to be local representation, not just on a national
level," said Eric Davis, a political science professor at
Rutgers University, who often travels to Iraq. "Even though
there's currently provincial governors, in effect, since there's
no mechanism to channel demands upwards, it's effectively as if
we had a governor of Maryland but no Maryland state Assembly.
There's nothing to back him up."
Supporters of the legislation also point to the fact that by
strengthening the provincial hierarchy, it weakens calls by some
in Iraq to divide the country into sectarian regions. The argument
goes: since the 18 provinces are divided by geography, not religious
identity, the possibility of forming three autonomous "super
regions" -- with the Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the
center, and Kurds in the north -- becomes less likely.
"This will mean an official end to the separatist project
of Iraq," Jarrar said.
Officially, the Kurds, who have the only recognized semi-autonomous
region composed of three provinces in the north, are excluded
from this new legislation.
According to some supporters including the White House, another
benefit of the law is that it provides an opportunity for the
first time to groups such as the Concerned Local Citizens -- allies
of the United States that have so far been kept out of government.
However, in doing so it raises the fears of some of those groups'
opponents in Baghdad -- including groups aligned with Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki -- that their parties' power will be encroached
But critics of the law say it will do little to clear up the
confusion of who controls what. Beyond providing an Oct. 1 deadline
for local elections and prioritizing national laws, the legislation
also provides the central government with the ability to sack
governors and provincial councils, leading to the fear that power
struggles could occur between Baghdad and local provinces.
"There's a serious lack of clarity and precision in this
law," said Rend al Rahim Francke, the executive director
of the Iraq Foundation and a former Iraqi ambassador to the United
States. "The jurisdiction of legislation of the provincial
councils is very vague. Who is allowed to pass legislation on
health care, for example? The federal government or the local
authority? This law doesn't say."
Jason Gluck, a legal scholar with the U.S. Institute of Peace,
who served as an adviser in 2006 to Iraq's Council of Representatives
on its constitutional review, said the new law also may be unconstitutional.
Iraq's Constitution says that in the event of conflict between
local and federal laws, the local law takes priority. However,
another section of the Constitution seems to contradict that by
describing the provinces as little more than administrative units
of the central government.
According to Gluck, because of the Constitution's contradictions,
when the Parliament began debating the law last summer, it had
to suspend discussions in order to seek an advisory opinion from
the nation's Supreme Court. The court's decision leaned toward
an interpretation of local authority as being broader rather than
"Every single aspect of daily life is administered by a
federal ministry," Gluck said. "If local law cannot
contradict national law, it doesn't give the local authorities
much room to legislate."
Even supporters of the law admit to being cautiously optimistic.
"There an Arabic saying, 'It's only ink on paper,'"
said Jarrar, the Iraqi consultant who supports a strong central
government in Iraq. "In other words it's still a piece of
paper, it hasn't been implemented yet."
Jarrar said he suspects members of the executive branch, including
al-Maliki, may try to prevent provincial elections from going
forward, fearing their parties will lose their grip on power.
Al-Maliki's party and others in his alliance are seen to be some
of the strongest supporters of decentralizing the country's power
and possibly creating regional sub-states along sectarian lines.
"If the elections are fair, the outcome will be a political
revolution in Iraq," Jarrar said. Groups like the Supreme
Council, the leading Shiite party, could lose control in a majority
of the provinces, where newer voices have emerged that haven't
been incorporated into the central government, including the Sunni
Concerned Local Citizen groups and similar Shiite groups.
Feisal Istrabadi, a law professor at Indiana University and a
former member of the Iraqi government who helped negotiate the
interim Constitution in 2003, said if the Supreme Council loses
in the elections, it could be due to the Sadrists -- referring
to the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is currently
observing a cease-fire against American troops partly due to their
expectations that new elections will come soon. "They are
a much less moderate force than the Supreme Council.
"There's more than one way to short circuit democracy,"
Istrabadi added. "And one is to hold too many elections too