BASRA, IRAQ — Crowded into a narrow room beneath an image of the Shiite icon Imam Ali, members of the Garamsha tribe drink tea and discuss current events with visiting journalists. Though reputedly behind most of the car thefts, hijackings, and kidnappings roiling this southern city, the tribesmen seem more interested in politics.
"Baghdad is so violent now, we are uncomfortable linking our fate with it," says Tariq Hamid, as his fellow clan leaders nod. "We support a decentralized form of government, where Basra controls its own affairs."
Like the Kurds to the north, the Shiites of Iraq's southern regions have long bristled under Baghdad's centralized and often brutal control. But with their security relatively stable and newly elected officials in office - particularly the increasingly independent provincial Governing Councils (GCs) - southern Iraqis are pressing the case for decentralization, or federalism.
"We get nothing, Baghdad monopolizes every resource," says Nassaif Jassim, deputy chairman of Basra Province's GC. "To get anything, we have to constantly ask the central government."
Gov. Mohammed Masabih al-Waali of Basra Province agrees. "Basra provides Baghdad with 95 percent of its budget," he says, "and yet we receive back barely 10 percent of our needs for such things as sewage services."
Last month, representatives of the GCs from the southern provinces of Basra, Maysan, and Dhi Qar met to discuss forming a single administrative unit. Basra GC member Hamid al-Dhalimy notes that the US-designed Temporary Administrative Law - which forms the current guidelines for Iraq's government - allows three provinces to unite and veto any provisions to the yet-to-be-written Iraqi constitution.
The south forms a natural bloc, Mr. Dhalimy says, due to its predominantly Shiite population, tribal affiliations that extend throughout the region, and the shared legacy of suffering under Saddam Hussein. "We see an entity called the 'Southern Province' which will have its own legislation, prime minister, and a capital in Basra."
According to David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "Losing Iraq," such a semiautonomous zone would suit the Iraqi mind-set. "A federal Iraq," he says, "must be based on culture and heritage. Baghdad can play a role, but the national government must recognize that a sense of communitarianism is important to the people of this country."
Nezar al-Mansoori, founder of the Federal Center for Developing the Southern Provinces, a Basra-based group of secular politicians and intellectuals interested in decentralization, envisions a three-province country-within-a-country, tied to Baghdad by treaties and possessing its own "army, foreign policy, and judiciary."
In Islam's past, Mr. Mansoori says, "governors paid taxes to the central government only when they felt they received something in return. We want to return to that tradition."
If Baghdad refuses to agree, he hints darkly, "We can muster over 12,000 men who are willing to force the issue to gain Baghdad's attention."
While British polling shows the vast majority of people want a federal structure to the new Iraqi government, many Iraqis are unwilling to go to the extremes suggested by Mansoori, fearing that geographic autonomy will result in an Iraq divided along ethnic and religious lines.
Instead, they are pushing for "administrative federalism," which calls for Baghdad to cede power to local officials.
"We don't believe that dividing Iraq will bring our people together," says Mr. Waali. "Rather, we see a system that consists of about 40 percent central authority, 60 percent local."
The stakes in the issue are high, especially from the perspective of Basra's provincial leaders. The region's ports, for example, provide Baghdad with some $40 million a month, while its border crossings send north another $6 million.
Then there's the rich Rumaila oil complex, located just west of Basra city. "Oil belongs to all Iraq, of course, but we believe we should control the resource that comes from our province," contends former provincial governor and current council member Hassan al-Rashid. "After all, we are more vulnerable to environmental damage and fluctuating market prices."
With some exasperation, Waali complains that he is unaware of the exact revenue generated from Rumaila and other oil sources, because "everything is controlled from Baghdad" - a situation he'd like to modify with a provincial tax of 15 to 20 percent.
Other issues include the small but significant controversy over municipal appointments. In the past, Baghdad has installed the directors of agencies overseeing such services as water and sewage. Not only have these men tended to be Sunni Muslims in heavily Shiite areas, but, according to a British engineer involved in repairing Basra's water system, "they spend most of their time paying attention to the needs of the central capital. There are also questions about their competence and honesty."
GC member Israa Saad comments that "Basra possesses people far more capable than those Baghdad sends down. We want to control the appointment process and get efficient directors for our local agencies."
Not everyone in the south favors geographic or administrative federalism. Fearing marginalization, most Sunnis wish to maintain close contacts with Baghdad. Even some Shiites have qualms about loosening ties with the center.
"If federalism means dividing Iraq, I'm against it," says Mr. Jassim. A member of the Fadullah religious party, Jassim also fears that such secular remedies for Iraq's political problems may conflict with the authority of Al-Mahdi, the so-called "Hidden Imam" whom many Muslims believe will return at the end of time to usher in a millennial era of justice and peace.
Another Shiite opponent is Moqtada al-Sadr. "We are totally against dividing Iraq in the name of federalism," says Abu Zahara al-Mayahi, a director of the firebrand cleric's Basra office. "Only people belonging to the puppet government support such a thing."
There are practical considerations to consider, as well. Baghdad is not likely to cede power without a struggle, and with little to tax besides oil and port traffic, the south will have to wait years before its economy can sustain semi-independence. "We Iraqis will continue to remain one family," says one Iraqi named Saddoun. "All cities in our country need Baghdad's help in reconstruction."
But the tantalizing vision persists of southern Iraq orbiting just far enough out of Baghdad's gravitational field to develop its own resources. "Oil, dates, tourism, the port - with enough freedom to maneuver, I see our city becoming a new Dubai in 10 years," says Zuhair Ali Akbair, general manager of Basra branch of the Central Bank.
It's an idea the tribal elders of the Garamsha endorse as well, if for different reasons. Concerned that a strong central government might curtail the power of tribes, Mr. Hamid remarks, "I see federalism creating a system where money, modern conveniences, and tribes can coexist. Something like Dubai," he adds.