In Iraqi south, Shiites press for autonomy
Momentum is building for a federation of southern provinces in a further challenge to Iraq's national unity.
When Najaf unplugged its power station from the national grid last week, it was a sign of provincial dissent over the unequal distribution of electricity. But it also indicates a new assertiveness in the south, as Iraq's regional leaders seek to wrest control from a central government in Baghdad paralyzed by political infighting.Skip to next paragraph
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Multiple visions for unifying the county's southern provinces are emerging. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), one of the most powerful Shiite parties, is leading the charge to form an autonomous "South of Baghdad Region."
But 45 southern tribal notables in Najaf last week signed their own pact that envisions creating "the self-rule government of the unified Iraqi south."
Regardless of which southern group wins out, Baghdad faces a formidable challenge that could mean not just the loss of electricity, but revenue from the region's ports and oil fields, and further fracturing along sectarian lines.
"A federation of regions is one of the more practical solutions to Iraq's problems, but there is real fear that this will only be a prelude to partition," says Thamer al-Ameri, former adviser to the Iraqi parliament and now independent politician.
"Iraqis have yet to prove they are capable of power-sharing. We are just not ready to be in a federative union. So far it has been all about each group getting the most for itself," he says.
When Najaf pulled the plug on its electricity from Baghdad, provincial spokesman Ahmed Duaibel said it was because the provincial officials felt Najaf was not getting its fair share of electricity.
"We were being cheated out of our allotted quota for electricity and we felt this did not befit Najaf's stature as a pilgrimage center and seat of the marjayia [Shiite religious authority]," says Mr. Duaibel. "We did this for the sake of our citizens and we do not consider it mutiny against the central government."
He says the province is prepared to turn on the power station's remote terminal unit, which normally allows Baghdad to manage the output, if Baghdad addresses provincial grievances.
But one prominent resident who is familiar with the workings of the local authority says the move is part of a larger effort to include Najaf in the "South of Baghdad Region." The other provinces included in the project are Babil, Basra, Dhi Qar, Diwaniyah (also known as Qadisiyah), Karbala, Maysan, Muthana, and Wasit.
In recent weeks, Ammar al-Hakim, the son of SIIC leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has been leading a passionate grassroots campaign to rally support for the project.
"A fundamental cornerstone of the new Iraq is the creation of regions all over Iraq, especially the South of Baghdad Region," said the younger Mr. Hakim during a rally in Najaf on July 19 commemorating the killing of his uncle Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim in August 2003 in the same city.
"I call upon you to be totally prepared from now to form the South of Baghdad Region at the end of the period prescribed by parliament," he said.
On July 21, he repeated the plea at another rally in Baghdad.
The national assembly had passed a controversial law in October 2006 outlining the mechanism for establishing regions in Iraq. The law allows for regions to be created starting early April 2008 provided local referendums are held on the issue.