Post-Conflict State Structure and Federalism: The Case of Iraq

Iraq still represents one of the most crucial examples of implementing a federalist state structure with the aim of combatting the division of the society in a post-conflictual context.

When studying Iraq, the deep divisions based on ethnicity and confessionalism soon become evident. Arabs are Iraq’s largest ethnic group, comprising about 75 percent of Iraq’s population and living primarily in the central and southern parts of the country; Kurds, who represent 20 percent, are mainly settled in the northern area. In addition to this, although most Arabs are Muslim, they belong to different sects: around 60 percent of Iraqis are Shi’a Muslims while the others are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, the country contains various minorities, such as Assyrians, Turkomans, Armenians, and Mandian Sabians.[1] Even from a linguistic point of view, the division of the population is extremely evident. In fact, many languages are spoken there: Arabic remains the most commonly used; however, it is divided into many different dialects (Mesopotamian, Jaziran, Gulfi and Nejdi); 20.5 percent speak Kurdish and its respective dialects (Sorani, Kurmaji, Kalhuri, Gurani, Zaza and Pahli);  2.8 percent is Neo-Aramaic (Arryrian-Chaldean dialects); 2 percent is Turkomani; 0.1 percent speaks Mandian Armaic; and the remaining 0.5 percent use other languages, such as Luri, Persian, and Circassian.[2] It is evident that the political prospects of such deep ethno-linguistic division can be extremely difficult. Therefore, after the US invasion of Iraq and the end of the war, the administration, with the support of the American establishment, saw the implementation of a democracy with a federalist structure − the only way possible to guarantee that certain groups would not gain supremacy or disadvantage the others. The very first article of the constitution claims that the Republic of Iraq is a single, federal, independent, and fully sovereign state, in which the system is republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic. Below is an explanation of the structure of the federal government: an entity characterized by Kurdistan, a decentralized capital region, and 18 governorates. Authority over the following competencies are shared between the federal government and regional units: Regional entities regulate the sources of electric energy and its distribution, environmental policies, public health policy, public education policies, and internal water supply. However, even though local governorates are given some autonomous means to support the political life of their states, the federal government continues to have exclusive authority over the following strategic elements: formulating foreign policy, diplomatic representation, signing and ratifying international treaties and agreements, national security policies, managing armed forces to secure protection, formulating fiscal policy, and regulating issues of citizenship.[3]

Forms of consociationalism and federalism are likely to be used in post-conflictual areas in which the conflict itself is caused by deep diversity among individuals; this fact persists in being a source of division and instability. Other examples of this practice with impact are Lebanon, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. However, other scholars have suggested that federalism might instead divide countries and contribute to the collapse of the unitary state,  mainly for the creation of proto-states.[4] At the same time, others have pointed out that federalism is only divisive when it lacks the mechanisms that can encourage political parties to cooperate across regional frontiers.[5]

However, at this stage, there are a few elements to consider that might contribute to even more polarization in the society.

First of all, the manner in which the state constitutes and faces the new resolution is extremely relevant. In the case of Iraq, the federal solution was imposed in particular by international actors, even though a great part of the population as well as the local political élites did not openly agree to that solution. In this way, of course, sentiments of individuals have been filtered through both internal hatred and suspiciousness toward external entities in modifying the status quo, later resulting in their having no interest in making the system work. Besides this, it is essential to adapt the new governance to the society itself, at the same time looking at the causes of the conflict themselves.

Surely it is in everybody’s interest to negotiate common grounds for a stable status quo. In this way, federalism succeeds by offering some autonomy to a certain part of the society and equal participation in political decisions among different communities. However, if the conflict is not solved at the grassroots level, that is, not only with agreements or treaties but through effective peacebuilding practices, these resolutions might favor secessionism or new clashes. In this case, in fact, the act of providing autonomous institutions is not a remote instrument to accomplish an idea of separation. Current deep divisions and past clashes might engender strong ideals regarding secession of the Kurdish region from Iraq itself. [6]

However, what remains the most crucial question regarding the implementation of the new Iraqi constitution and the federalist states structure lies in the lack of establishment of the Federation Council as prescribed in Article 48. Even if constitutionally defined, the parliament’s upper house has not been formed yet, and its presence would be a further step forward in Iraq’s democratization process: decentralization would be a reality and each part would be able to guarantee and monitor mutual constitutional rights. Although the Council of Representatives, the only committee formed up to now, has been extremely active, it has been facing disputes on laws that have sometimes further divided the main Iraqi constituencies (Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites), or has failed to pass needed laws.[7] However, one of the current and most crucial challenges in this divided political context is given to its further internal and external divisions. This is the case, for example, of the Badr Organization: Originally formed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to contrast against Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war, it has always supported the 2003 U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and currently is the second highest political coalition present in the Iraqi Parliament since the 2018 elections. The growing strength of this Iraqi militia has somehow institutionalized Iran’s influence in Iraq, therefore contributing not only to internal political clashes but also to instability on the regional and international levels.

[1] Dawn Brancati, Can Federalism Stabilize Iraq? in Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2004, p. 8.

[2] Dr. M. Izady, Iraq linguistic composition in 2000, available at:

[3] Iraq’s Constitution of 2005, available at

[4] Henry E. Hale, Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse, in World Political, Vol, 56, No. 2, pp. 165-193.

[5] Dawn Brancati, Peace by Design: Managing Intrastate Conflict through Decentralisation, Oxford UP, 2009.

[6] Anderson, pp. 161-167.

[7] Kamal Chomani, Iraq’s Missing Federation Council, available at: