Push for a Shiite State Snags Iraq Negotiations

Sunnis want the nation's Arabs under a strong central government, though they accept semi-independence for the Kurds in the north.

By Ashraf Khalil

Los Angeles Times

August 13, 2005

BAGHDAD — A proposal to establish a semi-independent state in the oil-rich Shiite Muslim heartland in southern Iraq has polarized negotiations over the country's new constitution, with a Monday deadline looming for submission of the document to parliament.

Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Arab negotiators met through the Arab weekend Friday, with the most divisive remaining roadblock the proposal for a federalist system with strong regional governments tied to a relatively weak central authority in Baghdad.

"That's the biggest one," said Iyad Samarrai, a Sunni and a senior official with the Iraqi Islamic Party who took part in Friday's talks. "When this issue is solved, all the others will be solved."

Kurdish and Shiite politicians have backed a scenario that would essentially split Iraq into three semiautonomous regions: a Kurdish north, Sunni Arab middle and Shiite Muslim south.

"The only problem is with our Sunni brothers. We and the Kurds are in agreement," said Jawad Maliki, a senior Shiite politician and member of the committee drafting the constitution. The Sunnis, he complained, "only want federalism for the Kurds."

Still, Maliki predicted the negotiations would wrap up ahead of schedule.

"God willing, we'll be finished and ready to present to the National Assembly on Sunday," he said.

Iraq's Kurdish north has enjoyed de facto autonomy since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the region came under U.S. and British protection from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces.

The continuation of Kurdish autonomy has been expected, but Sunni groups, including Samarrai's party, remain deeply opposed to extending the Kurdish model to other parts of the nation.

"We accept the federal system for Kurdistan," Samarrai said. "But we prefer the Arab regions in Iraq to live in a centralized system."

Kurds and Shiite Muslims have a long history of oppression at the hands of a strong central government dominated by minority Sunnis, and they are leery of concentrating too much authority in Baghdad. Sunnis, however, fear the creeping disintegration of the country.

The issue is intertwined with economics.

Iraq's considerable oil wealth is concentrated in the north and south, and Kurds and Shiites argue that each regional government should receive the lion's share of its area's oil revenue.

To Sunnis, whose simmering sense of alienation fuels the country's insurgency, that prospect conjures visions of thriving Kurdish and Shiite mini-states sandwiching an impoverished Sunni dustbowl.

Shiite politicians have long discussed establishing an autonomous southern state, particularly around the city of Basra, which is home to more than half of Iraq's oil wealth and for decades has seen most of the revenue flow north to the capital. But the issue gained momentum Thursday when Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the powerful Shiite parliamentary bloc, publicly endorsed the idea.

Samarrai downplayed the significance of Hakim's statement, saying, "What concerns me is what happens behind closed doors." He predicted the issue would not be resolved in time to be included in the formal constitution and recommended delaying the debate and submitting a document that doesn't mention federalism. He proposed waiting for a "healthy environment" and continuing the federalism debate in parliament or via referendum.

"In principle, it's acceptable," Samarrai said. "But we are not in a position to go through all these big changes."

The rhetorical battles over federalism carried over to the nation's mosques Friday.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, imam Sadruddin Qubanchi derided the "obsession" of critics who say federalism will lead to the disintegration of Iraq.

"We can't have two systems in the same country, one federal and the other not," Qubanchi said. "Anyway, the federalism that we believe in is the one that unites the people of Iraq, not separates them."

In Baghdad's Sunni Umm al Qura Mosque, imam Mahmoud Sumaidai called federalism a "trap [that] is being made for us by the enemies to divide our Iraq."

"The Kurds in the north have their own special case," Sumaidai said. "But dividing the country into three regions is not acceptable."

If Shiite and Kurdish politicians push through a federalist plan against Sunni objections, the same Sunni community that largely stayed away from January's parliamentary elections could turn out in force to reject the constitution in a national referendum scheduled for October.

Perhaps gearing up for such a fight, Sumaidai, in his sermon, launched an early effort to get out the vote. But he left it open as to which way Sunni citizens would be asked to cast their ballots.

"We are asking all to participate in the elections," he said. "We need your vote to say yes or no for the constitution with enough weight."

Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.