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.

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.

The law was opposed by Sunnis and Shiite rivals to SIIC, such as the Fadhila Party and Moqtada al-Sadr's movement, because they said it heralded the fragmentation of Iraq.

The debate over regional power

Under the Iraqi Constitution, regions have been given significant power, including adopting their own constitution; exercising executive, legislative, and judicial authority, organizing and managing internal security forces; and opening offices as part of Iraqi missions abroad. Also, regional laws take precedence over national ones in case of conflict.

The power of regions is currently one of the points of contention in the constitutional amendment process, according to an aide to Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, who heads the constitutional amendment committee in parliament.

An alternative to the plan that SIIC is promoting is the pact from tribal leaders. Leaders from Basra, Dhi Qar, Diwaniyah, Maysan, and Muthana provinces signed a pact in Najaf that envisions creating "the self-rule government of the unified Iraqi south." They even elected a president and announced plans to form a legislative-type body made up of 130 sheikhs and experts.

Sheikh Abdul-Karim al-Mahamadawi, who supports the initiative, says it's an alternative to the federalist or "super-region" project of the SIIC that would give more powers to "real southerners" while maintaining a commitment to a unified Iraq.

"The sons of the south have been marginalized in every way ... it's as if Saddam's dictatorship has been replaced with another one," says Mr. Mahamadawi, an influential tribal leader from Maysan who is openly critical of the Hakims.

Although Najaf and neighboring Karbala Province hold spiritual significance to Shiites, the viability of any regional federation hinges on Basra, which is the economic linchpin with its oil resources and sea access.

The case for partitioning

Partition is increasingly being advocated by Washington lawmakers and think tanks as the only way to bring peace to Iraq. "There is a massive operation underway to pave the way for the [south of Baghdad] region, but it's being done quietly," says Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a senior parliamentarian and Hakim partisan who favors the SIIC plan.

Besides enjoying a close relationship with Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and educating the public about the merits of the "South of Baghdad" project, Sheikh Saghir says his party has already drawn up a detailed blueprint for creating the regional administration and that regular meetings take place now between top political, economic, and security officials from all nine provinces to further the goal.

He says the issue is of "tremendous regional and strategic significance that leaves no room for misadventures."

But the project faces important obstacles from other influential elements within the Shiite community.

There is Mr. Sadr who, despite his low profile in recent months and a US-led crackdown against his Mahdi Army militia, continues to enjoy wide support, especially among disaffected segments of Shiite society.

The Fadhila Party says that one of the main reasons why SIIC and its allies "orchestrated a campaign" to squeeze out Basra's governor, Muhammad al-Waeli, is because of his strong opposition to joining the federation.

"They simply want to eliminate all those opposing the region project," says Jaber Khalifa, a Fadhila leader.

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