Federalism emerges as deal-breaker issue in Iraqi constitutional showdown
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Angry over Shiite calls for regional governments, preachers in many Sunni mosques urged their followers Friday to register and vote in the October constitutional referendum – but against the charter if it includes measures to “divide the country” through federalism.”We will say no to anything that leads to the division of our country,” Sheik Ayad al-Izzi told a congregation Friday in Baghdad’s Rashdiyah neighborhood. Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie urged worshippers in another mosque in the capital to reject federalism because “we are a unified nation.”Oil riches, lost prestige and the influence of neighboring Iran are all at play as Iraqis grapple with federalism – a potential dealbreaker just days before Monday’s deadline for parliament to approve the new constitution.”Matters are very complicated and need divine intervention” if the Monday deadline is to be met, Sunni Arab politician Saleh al-Mutlaq said Friday. He said that if the Shiites and Kurds steamroll a constitution unacceptable to the Sunnis, “it will be rejected by the people.”The Kurdish minority has demanded federalism be enshrined in the constitution to protect the regional self-rule it has enjoyed in the north since 1991. Many Sunni Arabs, a formerly dominant minority, oppose federalism, fearing it would lead to the breakup of Iraq.The head of the country’s biggest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called Thursday for a Shiite federated region in central and southern Iraq – a statement that seemed to vindicate the worst fears of many Sunni Arabs.Shiites form an estimated 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, and al-Hakim’s party controls 146 of the 275 seats in parliament.A Sunni backlash over federalism – if it ends up in the final draft of the constitution – could scuttle the Bush administration’s strategy for luring Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and enabling the United States and its partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.If two-thirds of the voters in three of the 18 provinces vote no in the referendum, the constitution would be defeated and the political process stopped dead in its tracks.Sunni Arabs form about 20 percent of the population nationwide but are a majority in at least four provinces. By the same token, Kurds, about 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraqis, could defeat the constitution if it does not include federalism since they control three provinces.Transforming Iraq from the highly centralized system of Saddam Hussein into a decentralized federal state might seem a logical course for a country as ethnically, religious and culturally diverse as the Balkans.However, federalism is the nexus of a complex web of social and political issues, grudges, rivalries and fears. Some of those fears date to the war with Iran in the 1980s. Others stem from rumors spread by Saddam’s allies before the 2003 invasion that the real U.S. goal was to dismember Iraq in the service of Israel.”The aim of federalism is to divide Iraq into ethnic and sectarian areas,” said Kamal Hamdoun, a Sunni Arab member of the committee writing the constitution. “We will cling to our stance by rejecting it.”Ayad al-Samarai, an official of the country’s largest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, argued that federalism is linked to so many other issues that it might take too much time to solve them all.Many mainstream Sunni Arabs have accepted the Kurdish autonomous region, which has existed for 14 years, although they oppose Kurdish demands to expand it.But a Shiite region is too much to swallow. It would leave a sizable Sunni population under Shiite control, as well as the vast southern oil fields and Iraq’s only outlet to the sea at Umm Qasr. Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra, the major metropolis of the south, has a substantial Sunni population.There are also questions about how much oil revenue would be shared with the central government and how much would be kept by regional administrations under federalism. The issue of distribution of national wealth is among the unresolved issues as the constitutional deadline nears.Shiites and Kurds would also control much of the border with Shiite-dominated Iran, with which both groups have maintained close ties. That would be alarming to many Sunni Arabs, who view Iran with deep suspicion after the 1980-88 war.Sunnis on the constitutional committee are also fighting proposals from Shiites to let Iraqis hold dual citizenship. Thousands of Iraqi Shiites fled to Iran during Saddam’s rule, returning only after his ouster by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003.In addition, if the Kurds fulfill their dreams of adding the northern oil center of Kirkuk to their self-ruled region, the Sunni Arabs would be left with territory largely devoid of natural resources, hemmed in between desert and territories controlled by rivals.That would be a terrible comedown for Sunni Arabs, the favored group since Ottoman times which dominated Iraq during Saddam’s rule. Most of the interest shown by Shiites and Kurds in championing federalism stems from their desire to ensure Sunnis never regain that power.
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