On November 1, 2013 Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki visited Washington, hand outstretched. Some might note the irony in the Iraqi premier requesting American assistance to fight a growing insurgency when he was so keen for the Americans to get out two years ago. Others might sigh in apprehension: “here we go again.” But, on the assumption that a stable Iraq is in America’s foreign policy interests, and with the hard earned knowledge that military superiority alone cannot guarantee stability,
Maliki’s request offers both America and Iraq an opportunity to strengthen local institutions of governance. Local government, being closer to citizens, can be the institutional guarantor of stability by becoming more responsive and more accountable. And local institutions of government can be strengthened, made more responsive and more accountable via adjustments to existing law, not wholesale changes or another major commitment of blood and treasure.
The changes that would be necessary could be grouped into one of three broad categories: political autonomy, financial autonomy and dispute resolution. Each change would require either a slight adjustment in how the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 is interpreted or amendments to existing law. Comprehensive and politically fractious changes are not needed; only a change in emphasis. To make those changes, however requires an understanding of ‘what is’ before positing ‘what could be.’
To understand the current limits of political autonomy exercised by officials below the national level it is necessary to look first at the systems of governance called into being by the Iraqi constitution, the jurisdiction of elected provincial officials and their means of election.
To understand the current limits on the financial autonomy of subnational government bodies, it is necessary to examine the way capital and operating needs are financed and the variety of means of funding local governance.
And to understand how the interests of the center and the periphery are balanced (and the inevitable conflict between them resolved), it is necessary to examine which government bodies have jurisdiction over what political divisions.
In subsequent posts, the specific issues within each of these categories will be explored. The approach we’ll take will be descriptive – looking at what the Constitution and various laws say about subnational institutions of governance – and prescriptive – how either changes in current interpretation or minor amendments could make those institutions more responsive to public demands, more accountable and more transparent, all aimed at making the overall governance of Iraq stronger and more stable.