Iraq’s Federalism Dispute: What Do Iraqis Think?

Results from a Chatham House opinion poll suggest ordinary Iraqis’ opinions on federalism are nuanced but that a clear schism with the Kurdistan region remains.

Expert comment Published 22 January 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 4 minute READ

Raad Alkadiri

Senior Director, Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Energy Impact

As Iraq seeks to manage its worst fiscal crisis in almost three decades, tensions between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are once again on the rise. Not for the first time, the dispute is over Baghdad’s conditions for the transfer of budget funds to the KRG in Erbil.

At its heart, the battle is constitutional. Ever since Saddam Hussein’s regime was ousted in 2003, there has been disagreement over how political power should be shared. On finances, hydrocarbons, defence, and a number of other issues, both Baghdad and Erbil has claimed competent authority at the expense of the other.

Amidst this political battle, the opinions of everyday Iraqis regarding federalism have often been ignored. Their views have often been assumed, based, in large part on who they vote for, or from slogans raised during demonstrations. But little effort has been made to assess what government structure Iraqis actually want, and whether there is any consistency of viewpoints across the country.

Over July and August 2020, Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative commissioned an opinion poll on the distribution of federal, provincial, and regional government authority in Iraq. Spanning 10 provinces across the country (Anbar, Baghdad, Basra, Erbil, Diyala, Hilla, Karbala, Kirkuk, Najaf, and Sulaimaniyah), the poll asked 1,217 Iraqis which level of government should have the mandate to make decisions in 10 policy areas (oil and gas sector; budget allocation; foreign affairs; security; electricity; water affairs; health; education; housing; and reconstruction).

Widespread support for federal authority

Broadly, the poll illustrated majority support for federal government authority, albeit with differences relating to policy issue. Particular support was apparent for federal level decision-making over the oil and gas sector (74.3%), budget allocation (82.7%), and foreign affairs (84.8%).

Opinions on the security and services sectors were more mixed. Around one-third of respondents favoured provincial or regional authority for security (34.8 %) and education (32.8%); for water affairs the proportion was almost half (47.7%). This likely reflects the legacy of local experience with federal government authority in these sectors, and their perceived importance to local affairs.

All respondents

Source: Survey conducted by Al Mustakilla for Research (IIACSS) in July and August 2020, commissioned by Chatham House

There were also significant differences in public opinion according to geography. Respondents in Baghdad and Kirkuk were by far the most avid proponents of federal authority. Support for federal decision-making averaged 87.7% across the ten policy areas for Baghdad, and 85.5% for Kirkuk. Moreover, neither province showed a falloff in support for the federal government’s mandate in security and service provision.

The fact that respondents in Baghdad expressed such strong support for federal government control may be explained by the fact that it is the seat of central government and the capital of Iraq; federal and local power there are synonymous in many ways. However, the results in Kirkuk are more surprising, given ongoing disputes over control of the area between the federal government and the KRG. There have been hints in the past that Kirkukis would prefer power devolved to a provincial level, in order to manage their own affairs and to circumvent the ongoing tussle between Baghdad and Erbil. This poll, however, suggest that the vast majority of Kirkukis want to remain under Baghdad’s mandate. This may reflect a skew in the population sample, or it may suggest that the population is more content with the current status quo than is widely assumed.

Call for services to be managed locally

In the remaining six non-KRG provinces, support for federal government authority over services was noticeably lower than it was for oil and gas policy, budget allocation and foreign affairs. There was particularly strong support for decentralization of authority over water, electricity, and housing policy to provincial governments, which may reflect the poverty of federal government services in these sectors.


Source: Survey conducted by Al Mustakilla for Research (IIACSS) in July and August 2020, commissioned by Chatham House

By contrast, support for federal government authority over education, while lower than scores for oil and gas, budget allocation and foreign affairs, was nonetheless strong. In all six of the provinces, a majority of those polled favored centralization of this mandate, with Najaf the highest (77.6%) and Basra the lowest (57.7%). Provincial differences undoubtedly reflect local experience and sentiment, but, overall, federal government delivery of education services appears to have satisfied majorities of the population even where support for decentralization of authority over other services is higher.


Source: Survey conducted by Al Mustakilla for Research (IIACSS) in July and August 2020, commissioned by Chatham House

Regarding security, the picture in the six provinces was mixed. However, there was clear minority support in some provinces for decentralizing security policy to provincial level, with support being stronger in predominantly Sunni ones than in predominantly Shia ones. The differences were not huge (Anbar showed the highest support, at 44.7% while Basra showed the lowest support, at 30.9%), but the differences were nonetheless significant, and may illustrate a continued mistrust of federally controlled security forces in predominantly Sunni provinces, in part due to sectarian concerns.

Schism with the Kurdistan region

The biggest geographical difference in the poll by far was between provinces controlled by the KRG (Erbil and Sulaymaniyah) and the non-KRG provinces. Support for federal government control was lower in all policy areas in these two provinces than was the case in the other eight provinces polled, illustrating a strong Kurdish preference for decentralization and self-government.

Respondents in Erbil offered the most overwhelming support for regional government authority, as the only province where support for a federal government mandate was in the minority in all areas. Nevertheless, it was noticeable that one-third or more of those polled supported federal authority over the oil and gas sector (33.3%), budget allocation (33.3%), and foreign affairs (38.3%), areas that have been contested between the federal government and the KRG in the past.


Source: Survey conducted by Al Mustakilla for Research (IIACSS) in July and August 2020, commissioned by Chatham House

Sulaimaniyah respondents however, in a noticeable contrast to Erbil, indicated majority support for a federal mandate in the oil and gas sector (66.3%), budget allocation (63.2%), and foreign affairs (60.0%). Support for a federal-government mandate over security and services was also significantly higher than in Erbil, although a majority still supported regional-government authority in these sectors. These results hint at significant divisions over policy management between


Source: Survey conducted by Al Mustakilla for Research (IIACSS) in July and August 2020, commissioned by Chatham House

Sulaimaniyah and Erbil, and significant mistrust of the KRG among the population of the former. It also belies the notion of a ‘Kurdish’ view on federalism; just as opinion differs across provinces outside the KRG, so there are noticeable differences within the region, too.

Options to resolve the federalism dispute?

Overall, the results point to a nuanced view of federalism that is partially reflected in the constitution and in decentralization legislation, but which has never been implemented due to ongoing political disputes between Baghdad, Erbil and non-Kurdistan provinces. Most Iraqis want some devolution of authority in the services area, leaving other areas under federal control. The basis for this is already in place with the Provincial Powers Law of 2008, legislation that has never been enacted.

By contrast, differences of opinion on devolution over budgetary distribution, security, and oil and gas are primarily a dispute between the federal government and the KRG. This impasse is precisely the one that has dogged Iraqi politics since 2003. Both Baghdad and Erbil see the issue as existential, and, as a result, neither side has been willing to compromise.

Nevertheless, circumstance has forced the federal government and the KRG to find workarounds to overcome their entrenched positions. Thus, while the status quo leads to regular crises, these are resolved through short-term measures that effectively recognize the KRG’s special status as a self-ruled territory. In other words, a de facto form of asymmetric federalism has been implemented by virtue of need rather than desire.

The opinion pollFor this nationally representative survey 1,217 interviews were conducted by the Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies (IIACSS), which is the only representative body of GALLUP in Iraq. Iraq is sub-divided into 18 Muhfada or governorates which are further broken down into districts or qada. These are broken down into Nahia or sub-districts and rural villages. Interviews are proportionately distributed to all 18 muhfada. Different approaches are used for selecting urban and rural locations, according to the desired province. To determine the households to survey, the starting point is identified using a random number table. The supervisor will divide the number of houses on the street by the number of interviews plus two potential substitutions (that is, 5+2=7) to calculate the skip pattern. Using this sampling interval, the interviewer randomly selects additional other houses on this street to interview. If there are multiple households within the selected dwelling, the interviewer will use a household selection grid (a table of random numbers) to determine the specific household for interview. The next birthday method is used where the adult above 18 with the closest approaching birthday is used to select the respondent within a household. Once the respondent is selected, the interview will be conducted with the respondent in-home. There is no gender quota, but a gender balance was generally achieved within the margin of error. The survey was fielded from 12 July to 9 August 2020 and, for this sample, the margin of error was 2.8, and a confidence interval of 95%. results suggest that there might be popular support for formalizing the current de facto arrangement between Baghdad and Erbil, if it also included a measure of decentralization in the rest of Iraq. Asymmetric federalism could persist, and the provinces would gain the control that they seek over local services. No side would get all that it wants; but at the same time, basic demands would be met, and one of Iraq’s most persistent challenges would be resolved.