Air Conditioners and Autonomy: Basra’s Case for Federalism

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To the people of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and the nation’s center of commerce, the air conditioner is both a blessing and a curse. The relief such an appliance provides from the stifling heat of the southern Iraqi summer is welcomed by all, especially in June and July when temperatures soar well above 40 degrees Celsius (105+ Fahrenheit). Yet the functionality of the air conditioner depends almost entirely on a functioning electrical grid. Therein lies the curse.

In July of 2018, the city of Basra and the surrounding countryside was wracked by violent, large-scale protests.1.“Rockets fired at Basra airport as violent protests grip Iraq” : Reuters The protestors clashed with security forces and Hash’d al-Shaabi militiamen, and several were killed as the military took to the streets to end the violence.2.“7 dead, more than 30 wounded in southern Iraq’s rally” : Yeni Safak Their demands were familiar to Iraqis who had experienced previous protests: they wanted cleaner water, better electrical infrastructure, and an end to the corruption that seemed to plague every level of government.3.“Rockets fired at Basra airport as violent protests grip Iraq” : Reuters This time, however, the stakes were higher, and those stakes continue to rise as Basra’s infrastructure issues have only gotten worse. The upcoming summer of 2019, which will almost certainly continue the trend of record-breaking high temperatures across the region, will be a crucial test for Basra as well as Iraq’s new administration in Baghdad.

Conversations about Iraq’s troubled electricity grid are a part of a larger discourse about conceptual decentralisation, which has been a thorny issue for years. This article cannot possibly hope to provide a comprehensive picture of the Iraqi dialogue over decentralisation, or how decentralisation could potentially play out on various levels of local governance. It also cannot hope to encompass all of the opinions and thoughts of the diverse body of Iraqi people. However, this article will touch on the arguments for and against the development of a “federal Basra”, and provide background to said arguments.

Economic and Political Background

In the wake of the 2003 invasion and the deposition of the Ba’ath government, Iraq’s administration was rebuilt from the ground up. Utilities infrastructure development was overseen by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which spearheaded development campaigns in virtually every sector.4.Allawi, Ali A. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace.” Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2007) The outcome of these campaigns ranged from moderate successes to catastrophic failures.5.Allawi, Ali A. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace.” Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2007) These responsibilities were passed on to the Jaafari-led administration beginning in 2005, with Jaafari and later Maliki continuing the development projects with the support of other states. Multilateral corruption in the government spoiled many of the successes, and the advent of the Islamic State (IS) and the following conflict postponed many development projects and put the federal government under a massive financial burden.

Iraq’s contemporary political system, although a major improvement over the past regime, is also seriously flawed and suffers from severe corruption. In the two years leading up to the fall of Mosul in 2014, graft, theft, and nepotism in all administrative bodies were so prominent that some branches of the administration simply failed to work. The military suffered supply shortages and low morale, utilities services functioned at extremely inefficient levels, and the employment rosters of virtually every ministry were bloated with excess. The Ministry of Electricity, which oversees Iraq’s power grid and energy trade, was no exception.6.“A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” : The New York Times

Iraqi energy infrastructure has been insufficient ever since the Gulf War, when airstrikes damaged much of the grid.7.“A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” : The New York Times The installation of a new administration and international support mitigated some issues but the task of meeting demand remains daunting. At peak demand, Iraq’s electricity grid requires nearly 23,000 mW, with a large chunk of that dedicated to the southern provinces of Basra and Dhi Qar.8.“وزير الكهرباء يبحث عن آلية استقرار للطاقة” : Kurdistan24 The grid’s current capacity is less than two-thirds of that. The MoE, currently helmed by Luay al-Khateeb, has a surplus of employees and a deficit of functioning equipment, and continues to suffer from rampant graft and theft even after a notable crackdown campaign.9.“الخطيب يبحث مع توزيع كهرباء بغداد استعدادات الشركة لاشهر الصيف المقبل” : Iraq Akhbar The regnant corruption combined with the lack of equipment means that electricity shortages are a feature of the current system.

Cooperation between Kuwait and the MoE has provided some alleviation in the past year, with Kuwait exporting electricity at reduced rates to Iraq’s south.10.“تعاون بين العراق والكويت بخصوص الكهرباء” : The Baghdad Times Iranian electricity imports also play a role, with Iran’s electricity ministry providing not only large-scale imports of natural gas but also infrastructure support.11.“وزير الطاقة الإيراني: لدينا خطة لتأهيل قطاع الكهرباء العراقي” : Masrawy12.“وزير الكهرباء يبحث عن آلية استقرار للطاقة” : Kurdistan24 Iran in particular has provided significant support in the past, donating equipment and providing labor as well as raw energy across the border to support its neighbor.13.“وزير الكهرباء يبحث عن آلية استقرار للطاقة” : Kurdistan24 Though the application of new United States sanctions to Iran have threatened this partnership, so far the U.S. has continued to provide Iraq with temporary exemptions from the sanctions.14.“وزير الطاقة الإيراني: لدينا خطة لتأهيل قطاع الكهرباء العراقي” : Masrawy In the winter months, these partnerships generate enough energy for Iraq to cover demand. When summer rolls around, things change.

A Regular Summer’s Day

Large swathes of Iraq see temperatures soaring well above 40 Celsius as early as May, and Basra is no exception. The Iraqi market for both residential and commercial air conditioning systems has grown considerably since 2003, with the national market expected to grow by almost 6% by 2024 and the markets in Basra and Dhi Qar both expected to grow by up to 19% in that same timeframe.15.Iraq Air Conditioner Market (2018 – 2024): Market Forecast, 6W Research Hotels, restaurants, markets, manufactories, and millions of homes have invested in interior air conditioning systems, and the strain that it puts on the electrical grid is exceptional.

The pattern is predictable for many Basrawis. As the testimony goes, mornings start off easy as temperatures are relatively mild and power supply exceeds demand. At noon, the situation is more tenuous. As temperatures climb in the afternoon, the hundreds of thousands of A/C units across the city work overtime, and demand will commonly exceed supply. The grid is overwhelmed, and brownouts roll across the city. On some days, the power comes back on quickly. On other days, it may still be out by the next morning, and restorations may often only last for a few hours before the power is lost once more.16.Ollivant, Douglas A. “Summer is Coming: The Crucible for the New Iraqi Government”. War on the Rocks publication.

Iraqis in Basra take to the streets to mourn the death of Yasser Makki following an escalation of riots in the summer of 2018. Photo credit to al-Jazeera Iraq.

The unbearable heat in and of itself is already a dire problem. But Basra does not only suffer electricity issues. Its residents are simultaneously plagued by rising unemployment rates, polluted water, poor transportation infrastructure, and corruption and graft in Baghdad that sees Basra’s profits from oil and gas resources absorbed by the central government.17.Ollivant, Douglas A. “Summer is Coming: The Crucible for the New Iraqi Government”. War on the Rocks publication. As little has changed and for many the situation has only worsened, resentment and frustration has erupted into protests and even riots, with anger directed at everything from the Prime Minister to the Hash’d al-Shaabi.18.“7 dead, more than 30 wounded in southern Iraq’s rally” : Yeni Safak

The frustration has led many to consider alternative forms of governance that can successfully attend to their situation. It is evident that Baghdad is unable, and to some degree unwilling, to care for its second most densely-populated province. Their lack of action in Basra and surrounding towns and continuing inability to attend to crises within the central government makes this clear. Arguments about the best course of action abound, but the complicated concept of Iraqi federalism is beginning to become more and more appealing to those who are suffering year after year. Federalism in Iraq has been and will continue to be a hotly debated topic, and understanding it requires going back into the Iraqi constitution and its applications over the past ten years.

Federalism in the Constitution

The Iraqi Ba’ath regime favored a policy of centralisation and national governance, where control was based in Baghdad and provincial authorities had limited powers.19.Allawi, Ali A. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace.” Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2007) When the regime was deposed and the new Iraqi constitution was drafted throughout 2004 and into 2005, the shape of the government evolved into a structure that was more decentralised and friendly to federalisation. The drafters of the constitution, as well as the authorities of the CPA, realised to some extent that delegating more powers to the provinces would be necessary. Articles 116 through 124 in the Constitution, therefore, delineate in fairly straightforward but frustratingly simple terms the new balance of powers between the capital and the provinces.20.Text of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. The difficult questions that many were asking their representatives at the time went unanswered by said representatives. While the legislation provides authorities with the right to implement policies of decentralisation, there was no guiding doctrine to determine how best to develop these policies.21.Text of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005.

Thus federalism became a controversial topic among the major political parties that took control of the country after the 2006 elections. Kurdish parties, in general, were amenable towards increasing local autonomy.22.Moradi, Jahanbaksh, and Motalebi, Masoud. “A Study of Federalism in Iraq From the View of the Micro Level of Analysis”. Procedia Magazine, Vol. 205, 9 October 2015 Sunni and Shia parties, however, were more resistant to implementing various drafted plans for empowering local authorities, especially in the disputed Kirkuk region. The powerful Dawa bloc, in particular, expressed its support for conceptual federalism but moved to block decentralisation movements in practice, preferring a centralised government.23.Moradi, Jahanbaksh, and Motalebi, Masoud. “A Study of Federalism in Iraq From the View of the Micro Level of Analysis”. Procedia Magazine, Vol. 205, 9 October 2015 The lack of a coherent plan and lack of coordination prevented any sort of practical decentralisation movement even when political authorities were generally in agreement about what should be done, and the rise of IS in 2014 put most conversations about decentralisation to the wayside.

A Case for Federalism?

With the conflict against IS now over with, the minds of Basrawis are now turning towards attending to those pressing matters that are no longer to the wayside. The violent riots in the summer of 2018 provoked numerous fresh conversations about the fraught relationship between Baghdad and Basra, and what could be done. To some, the answer lies somewhere between “limited decentralisation” and “full-on separatism”.

Current efforts by Baghdad to delegate more powers to the province and promote decentralisation have been limited in scope and effectiveness, and can be described more accurately as deconcentration than anything else. As previously mentioned, the province’s significant profits from oil and gas industries have become a major point of contention for people who feel that they are being robbed of their just dues.24.Moradi, Jahanbaksh, and Motalebi, Masoud. “A Study of Federalism in Iraq From the View of the Micro Level of Analysis”. Procedia Magazine, Vol. 205, 9 October 2015 While the authoring of Law 21 and an amendment to the constitution several years back stipulated that 5% of all provincial hydrocarbons profit be directed back to the province in question, in practice this has not happened with regularity.25.Mawlawi, Ali A. “‘Functioning Federalism in Iraq’: A Critical Perspective”. Published by the LSE Middle East Centre blog. If anything the profits go completely to Baghdad, leaving Basra and provinces like it bereft of their petrodollars. Attempts to mitigate this by transferring offices of the Ministries of Electricity and Oil out of Baghdad to cities in Basra and Dhi Qar, which seems more like deconcentration than decentralisation, have failed to help. Residents are bereft of the bounties of their petrodollars, and local authorities find themselves unable or unwilling to meet the needs of their constituents.26.Mawlawi, Ali A. “‘Functioning Federalism in Iraq’: A Critical Perspective”. Published by the LSE Middle East Centre blog.

Another pressing issue, while on the subject of energy, is the current state of Iraq’s national energy grid. The grid, which distributes power throughout Iraq, is built on a network of regional substations but is administered by a central authority, that being Luay al-Khateeb and the Ministry of Electricity. Under normal circumstances such centralisation would not be a major issue, but Iraq’s electrical grid suffers from disrepair, the damages of war, and staffing problems.27.“A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” : The New York Times The grid has also suffered from low frequency oscillation phenomena and energy damping, phenomena which are caused by poor maintenance and outdated equipment.28.Sattar, K.A., and al-Taee, M.A. “Small-Signal Stability Assessment of Iraqi National Grid” International Journal of Modelling and Simulation, Volume 28, Issue 1 (2008) The centralised nature of the national grid makes attending to these problems more difficult, and corruption within the ministry has consistently plagued modernisation efforts.29.Sattar, K.A., and al-Taee, M.A. “Small-Signal Stability Assessment of Iraqi National Grid” International Journal of Modelling and Simulation, Volume 28, Issue 1 (2008) The propagation of private generator networks throughout Iraq is due, in part, to the poor performance of the national grid. The popularity of these private networks, which tend to be wasteful and at times just as inefficient, is evidence of trending distrust between local populations and the central government.

In response to Baghdad’s shortcomings, some Basrawis are itching for radical political change, with support for a federal region growing. Those in support of increased autonomy and the institution of a Basra federal region have cited the relative successes of the KRG in favor of their argument.30.“وزير الكهرباء يبحث عن آلية استقرار للطاقة” : Kurdistan2431.https://twitter.com/Mustafa_Habib33/status/1116726128775966720 They believe that, with control of the province’s oil and gas industries in the hands of local authorities, Basra will profit and infrastructure and jobs issues will be mitigated and solved. Some members of Basra’s provincial council believe it is only a matter of time, and argue that a larger provincial income from oil and gas will allow the council to better address local issues. Talk of independence is limited and few people actually support the “Sumer” secession project; autonomy is the goal for most, not full liberation from the central government.

Yet not everybody is in favor of gaining autonomy and growing apart from Baghdad. Though the movement for autonomy and the development of a federal region has its proponents both on the street and in government offices, many prominent figures believe that such a solution is not in the interest of the country. Among the most prominent of these figures was Muqtada al-Sadr, who publicly denounced the federalism project while acknowledging the plight of Basra.32.https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1114940165141692416 Along with other prominent officials from the Sayiroon party, Sadr urged the central government to begin to seriously address the concerns of Iraqis across the country, arguing that Baghdad had the best chance of fixing the major issues. In addition, many Iraqis know that local councils and assemblies are no more coherent than the central government in Baghdad, and can be just as prone to corruption and infighting. The recent scandals plaguing Mosul’s local government, which culminated in the firing of Mosul’s governor Nofal al-Hammadi after the tragic ferry sinking that killed over 100 people, are evidence of this.33.“Scores dead as ferry sinks in Tigris River near Iraq’s Mosul” : Al-Jazeera  

The ultimate outcome of this debate will depend on how Baghdad handles the coming summer and its imminent energy crisis, and whether or not Basrawi officials are willing to give the central government time to address the growing issues. Previous Iraqi administrations have promised much and delivered little; whether or not the Council under PM Abdul-Mahdi will change this trend remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: summer will be coming, in a month now, and the people of Basra will not tolerate continued ambivalence towards the problems that consistently plague their province.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

References   [ + ]

1, 3. “Rockets fired at Basra airport as violent protests grip Iraq” : Reuters
2, 18. “7 dead, more than 30 wounded in southern Iraq’s rally” : Yeni Safak
4, 5, 19. Allawi, Ali A. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace.” Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2007)
6, 7, 27. “A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” : The New York Times
8, 12, 13, 30. “وزير الكهرباء يبحث عن آلية استقرار للطاقة” : Kurdistan24
9. “الخطيب يبحث مع توزيع كهرباء بغداد استعدادات الشركة لاشهر الصيف المقبل” : Iraq Akhbar
10. “تعاون بين العراق والكويت بخصوص الكهرباء” : The Baghdad Times
11, 14. “وزير الطاقة الإيراني: لدينا خطة لتأهيل قطاع الكهرباء العراقي” : Masrawy
15. Iraq Air Conditioner Market (2018 – 2024): Market Forecast, 6W Research
16, 17. Ollivant, Douglas A. “Summer is Coming: The Crucible for the New Iraqi Government”. War on the Rocks publication.
20, 21. Text of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005.
22, 23, 24. Moradi, Jahanbaksh, and Motalebi, Masoud. “A Study of Federalism in Iraq From the View of the Micro Level of Analysis”. Procedia Magazine, Vol. 205, 9 October 2015
25, 26. Mawlawi, Ali A. “‘Functioning Federalism in Iraq’: A Critical Perspective”. Published by the LSE Middle East Centre blog.
28, 29. Sattar, K.A., and al-Taee, M.A. “Small-Signal Stability Assessment of Iraqi National Grid” International Journal of Modelling and Simulation, Volume 28, Issue 1 (2008)
31. https://twitter.com/Mustafa_Habib33/status/1116726128775966720
32. https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1114940165141692416
33. “Scores dead as ferry sinks in Tigris River near Iraq’s Mosul” : Al-Jazeera