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Iraq premier Nouri al-Maliki challenges restive provinces

By and Asaad Majeed,

BAGHDAD — Moving to consolidate his control over a country rocked by a political crisis and recent bombings, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed Saturday to block any efforts by the provinces to break away as independent states.

If the provinces tried to set up their own security policies or establish relations with other countries, Maliki said in a nationally televised speech from his headquarters, “What’s the reason for a having a ruler in Baghdad?”

The prime minister acknowledged that the Iraqi constitution allows provinces to establish a limited degree of autonomy, but he said that doesn’t mean he would allow the country to break into regions dominated by particular sects.

“The worst of this division is the smell of sectarian division,” Maliki said.

In recent weeks, officials in three Sunni-dominated provinces — Anbar, Diyala and Salahuddin — have indicated that they may pursue greater autonomy.

In Diyala, east of Baghdad, those signals prompted Shiite militiamen to surround the provincial council headquarters and set fires along main streets. As of Saturday, the protests had diminished, but 18 of the 29 Sunni members of Diyala’s provincial council were still taking refuge in the northern part of Diyala or in Kurdistan.

In Anbar, west of the capital, local leaders gave Maliki’s government until Wednesday to commit to improving services and stopping what they called random arrests. If the deadline is not met, they said, they will meet Thursday to discuss greater autonomy.

Even as he voiced concern over sectarian rifts, Maliki, a Shiite, criticized the performance of the power-sharing government established in Baghdad while U.S. troops were here. He said that the government — whose framework is designed to spread leadership posts among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — isn’t getting anything done and that the constitution allows him to take more authority.

“Power-sharing cannot be the foundation of solving our problems,” he said.

The current political crisis erupted a week ago, when Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government announced an arrest warrant against the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of enlisting his bodyguards to run a hit squad. Hashimi fled to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, prompting Maliki to demand that Kurdish officials return him.

Hashimi has since said that Maliki is impossible to work with, and fellow Sunni leader and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak recently labeled Maliki a “dictator.”

On Thursday, at least 17 bomb blasts ripped through Baghdad, killing 65 people. No group claimed responsibility.

“We have bad guys on both sides,” a veteran Iraqi official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly about the tense situation. “When one side feels threatened, they let these guys loose.”

Beyond that, he said, the political battles have grown so complicated that it is impossible to predict how things will play out. Other nations in the region are trying to exert influence, he said, and Iraq’s various Shiite groups are divided.

“Everyone should cool off, cool down. It’s not the time to go back” to the extreme sectarian violence of a few years ago, he said.

Although nothing like Thursday’s carnage, violence flared Saturday in several parts of the country. In Baghdad, gunmen killed two and injured three members of a family in the western neighborhood of Ghazaliyah; in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, a police officer was killed and his wife and daughter were injured when a bomb exploded under his car; and in the northern province of Kirkuk, two police officers were killed and several shops destroyed by two explosions.

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