As'ad Sultan Abu Kulal said on a visit to RFE/RL in Prague today that his region is using the decentralization of power in Baghdad to make many of its own decisions. He says the result it that Al-Najaf has achieved economic self-sufficiency, both in food and fuel.
The Al-Najaf governor acknowledged that his province has many starting advantages -- including a historically thriving tourism industry based on religious pilgrims flocking to the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf.
The religious tourism has boomed since the overthrow in 2003 of Saddam Hussein's regime, which greatly discouraged it. Recent years have seen investors build more than 450 hotels to lodge the pilgrims, many of whom are from neighboring Iran. The trade also supports restaurants and specialty shops, generating enough revenue for the city to enjoy considerable economic security relative to much of the rest of the country. Benefits Of Devolution
But Abu Kulal says Al-Najaf has prospered in recent years mostly because the decentralized government in Baghdad allows local authorities to make many key decisions on their own. He says the city's goal is to use this freedom to create self-sufficiency in fuel and food -- two key economic staples.
"Our theory as a provincial council and civil administration is to build complementary, self-sufficient institutions for this purpose," he said. "For example, we are building the health sector, to have hospitals, and have medicine depots. For energy, we are building power stations, in order not to need power transferred from other provinces. We are building oil refineries, so as not to be obliged to bring fuel from outside the province."
Al-Najaf has been relatively free of unrest since major fighting between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army in 2004. The Al-Mahdi Army is loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Control of the city today is shared between supporters of al-Sadr and supporters of other Shi'ite religious parties, particularly the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. A major moderating influence over the sometimes violent rivalries between factions is the presence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the preeminent Shi'ite religious authority in Iraq.
The Al-Najaf governor told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that federalism offers opportunities for other parts of the country, too, despite resistance to the idea in some quarters.
"We have tried during the last few years to practice a tiny part of decentralization, and you could see the huge change that happened when the state gave [us] a little bit of authority, and a little bit of funds," Abu Kulal said. "Despite the lack of local resources and human resources -- there was development. But the problem that we face is that a part of the Iraqi people lack a knowledge of federalism."
Federalism remains a divisive issue in Iraq, where the Sunni community says it could lead to unequal sharing of the country's oil wealth or even break up of the country. Most oil wells are in the Shi'ite-majority south of the country or in the Kurdish north.
Iraq's Kurds currently enjoy substantial autonomy under Iraq's federal system. Many Shi'ite parties are actively pressing for similar rights for southern areas.
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