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Iraq: Divisive Federalism Debate Continues

Al-Hakim's SCIRI has been one of the main proponents of federalism (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, September 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi political leaders have been at loggerheads this week over a proposal by a major Shi'ite party for a draft law detailing the mechanisms for establishing regional governments.

Representatives from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) attempted to put the proposal before parliament on September 6, only to have it postponed until September 10, when Sunni Arab parliamentarians from the Iraqi Accordance Front backed by supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of the Islamic Virtue Party refused to attend the parliament session in protest of the draft.

The latter two parties, like SCIRI and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, belong to the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, the largest political bloc in the Council of Representatives.

Media reports indicate that representatives from the Iraqis List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also oppose SCIRI's federalism proposal, as does the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, led by Salih al-Mutlaq.

For its part, the Kurdistan Coalition supports the proposal. Kurds have attributed the success of their region to their 12 years of self-rule before the fall of the Hussein regime.

Ultimately, parliamentarians decided to open up discussions on federalism this week, but said parliament would not formally review any drafts until at least September 19.

Those opposed to the draft said they would submit alternative draft laws that would support decentralization in lieu of regional groupings. Adnan al-Dulaymi said the Accordance Front's proposal would include a call for the dissolution of the Kurdish autonomous region.

National Unity Under Threat

For many Iraqis, the issue of federalism is highly explosive and rooted in deep-seated fears of the country's future direction. For some, SCIRI's proposal equates to a first step towards the breakup of the country and the establishment of an Islamic state in south-central Iraq, closely allied with Iran.

SCIRI and Al-Da'wah leaders contend that such speculation is nothing more than a conspiracy theory promoted by the very people who once coveted Iraq's oil wealth. Both groups see federalism as a means of overcoming their recent historical experience in Iraq, placing the country's once-oppressed Shi'ite community at the forefront of Iraqi politics where they rightfully belong as the majority. Federalism will guarantee Shi'a never again suffer under the tyranny of a minority Sunni dictatorship, they claim.

Detractors say the issue, coupled with the Shi'ite insistence on pushing the issue through parliament quickly, goes against previous agreements, including the Accordance Front's support for the constitution -- which enshrines the concept of federalism -- ahead of its ratification last year, in exchange for a Shi'ite commitment to revisit federalism and other constitutional issues following the formation of the permanent government. The SCIRI proposal, Sunnis claim, in essence reneges on that agreement.

The perception by Sunni Arabs that their trust has been violated by Shi'ite leaders only threatens to foster further sectarian conflict in Iraq. It is a threat to Prime Minister al-Maliki's national-unity government, as well as his administration's national reconciliation project, which seeks to end the insurgency.

Postponing Debate

According to Iraqi media reports, the UN has suggested delaying debate over federalism for another year. Meanwhile, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa has called on Iraqis to reach an agreement "which serves the goals of accordance, reconciliation, and stability," that can be implemented in a way that "maintains Iraq's unity, safeguarding its territories and not its partition."

How political groups ultimately decide to deal with issue this week will give insight into how other hot issues are resolved in the coming months. Until now, the most contentious issues faced by the interim and transitional governments have been postponed rather than addressed head on.

Indeed, the prime minister may find that it is more advantageous to resolve the more pressing issues of the insurgency and national reconciliation before taking on a topic so emotionally explosive for Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups.

However, it is unclear whether major issues could go unresolved for his entire four-year administration. At the very least, several articles of the constitution would need to be amended in order to accommodate such a decision.

Fierce Opposition For Various Reasons

While an array of political parties stand united in their opposition to federalism, their reasons are quite different. For Sadrists, the issue is nationalistic. Al-Sadr and his supporters believe that federalism in the south of Iraq will serve to further fragment the country. Al-Sadr's opposition to federalism is well-known, and his potential to use the issue to exploit current sectarian tensions apparently prompted SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim to visit the cleric in Al-Najaf on September 10 in an effort to, at the very least, convince him to not oppose the draft law.

Sunni Arab leaders have put the issue in much the same light as al-Sadr. Iraqi Accordance Front leader Adnan al-Dulaymi told reporters at a September 9 press briefing in Baghdad said his bloc would "stand in the face of those trying to dismember Iraq," adding, "Federalism is a prelude to partition." Likewise, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called the SCIRI proposal a prescription to divide Iraq.

Sunni Arabs' fear of federalism is also rooted in the belief that they will be the losers in the division of riches from Iraq's most precious resource: oil.

All About Oil

A federal region established in the Shi'ite-dominated areas of the south would likely encompass the nine governorates that also happen to contain southern Iraq's vast oil fields. That region, coupled with the Kurdish region in the north, would leave Sunni Arabs with the potential to form a region in the governorates of Al-Anbar, Ninawah, Salah Al-Din, and Diyala -- none of which are known to have any substantial oil reserves.

Kirkuk Governorate, which borders the Kurdistan region, does have vast oil reserves, and as such, is highly contested among the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans living there.

But neither the Baghdad nor Kirkuk governorates are likely to join any regional grouping, the former because of its mixed population and status as the capital, and the latter because of the current political climate, although Kurds would like to see it incorporated into the Kurdish region.

Agreeing To Disagree

Shi'ite and Kurdish members of Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration remain committed to the federalism project. Government spokesman and Shi'ite leader Ali al-Dabbagh told the website Ilaf in a September 3 interview that federalism would help create a more democratic Iraq. The "federal system seeks to design a system for distributing authority and not limiting it to a certain group; a system that guarantees broader participation, justice, and an administrative system that has proven its feasibility in many countries," he said.

Meanwhile, parliament speaker and Sunni Arab leader Mahmud al-Mashhadani told "The Washington Post" that federalism is all but dead, the daily reported on September 13. He said it was likely that political leaders meeting that day would postpone the topic for another four years.

However, SCIRI head al-Hakim continues to push the proposal. He asked Shi'ite religious leaders this week to make federalism a central topic in their prayer sermons during the holy month of Ramadan, which is set to begin around September 24.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.