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August 7, 2006

Iraq's Shias Going Their Own Way


by Jim Lobe

ARBIL, Iraq - Amid failed moves for a peace deal between the government and insurgents through a national reconciliation plan, the Shia majority in Iraq are pushing ahead for creating a federal region for themselves in the southern part of Iraq.

The move is hugely sensitive in the light of the increasingly hard political positions taken by Shia Iran and the conflict in Lebanon involving Hezbollah, the militant Shia group.

"The prime minister's reconciliation project has failed, and so far no major insurgency group has endorsed it," Abdullah Aliawayi, Kurdish member of Iraq's House of Representatives, told IPS. He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had implicitly acknowledged the failure of his plan at a meeting with representatives of the major political parties.

The 24-point plan announced by Maliki in June offered amnesty to insurgents other than those who had targeted civilians. It also included a plan to disarm militias. None of these things have happened, and insurgents still call the shots in Baghdad and other cities.

According to some official sources, more than 14,000 Iraqis were killed in just the first half of the year.

Outgoing British ambassador to Iraq William Patey has warned of civil war in Iraq and a breakup of the country along sectarian lines. Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, has also warned of civil war if sectarian violence is not halted.

Many Iraqi politicians go further to say that the country is in civil war already.

"Iraq is now in a state of undeclared civil war," said Aliawayi, who attended a failed meeting of Iraqi factions in Cairo. "The visions of Sunnis and Shias for the future of Iraq are too far from each other to be easily brought together in a joint program."

As more and more signs of the failure of the reconciliation plan surface, Shia groups are speeding up efforts to carve a federal region for themselves.

Speaking at a ceremony at the holy city Najaf last week, Iraq's Shia Vice- President Adil Abdul-Mahdi said Shia parliamentarians will raise the issue of federalism in parliament.

"We suggest continuing the establishment of regions," he said. "We are going to submit the project to the parliament in the coming two months." The government, he said, had failed to provide basic services.

Shia politicians claim that the constitution, which the Sunnis reject, allows them to create their federal regions. Sunnis see the creation of federal structures as a prelude to partitioning of the country.

Many see a link between the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and the Shia push for autonomy in the south.

"Certainly the current complicated political and security situation, in addition to economic factors, has been a key reason in driving Shias towards demanding the establishment of their federal regions in the south," Najdat Akreyi, national security expert at Arbil's college of political science told IPS.

If Iraq is to avoid the looming civil war, Akreyi said it "cannot continue the way it does now." He said that a federal structure cannot spare the country from violence, and what Iraq needs is a system that provides for larger self-rule for the main ethnic and sectarian groups. This move would be a step short of federalism.

"Iraq's political map has to be reviewed and redrawn by creating a system of confederations, which devolves huge powers to separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish entities to govern themselves," he said. Since Sunnis control the source of the rivers in southern Shia Iraq, Shias and Sunnis can exchange water and oil, he said.

"To prevent further bloodshed, we must not be afraid to admit that Iraq is not a holy entity, and can be subject to revisions that can bring stability to the region," he said. "That is what necessitates confederation."

The disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are good models for Iraq to follow, Akreyi said.


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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