By Amit R. Paley and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 11 -- Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, remains adamantly opposed to a controversial plan to partition Iraq into a federation of three largely independent regions, a top Sadr aide said Monday.
"Iraq must not be divided," said Riyadh Nouri, the aide to Sadr, who has opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Sadr's objection to the plan remains steadfast despite a meeting Sunday night in Najaf between Sadr and his intermittent rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the prominent Shiite political party that is leading the push for federalism.
The dispute between two of the most influential Shiite politicians in Iraq highlights the bitter divisions between various parties in the country's fragile ruling coalition. The rift also underscores the divisive nature of the federalism issue, which has pitted Sunni Arabs against some Shiites and Kurds.
The main Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, boycotted Sunday's legislative session to protest a measure that would create a mechanism for carving Iraq into three autonomous regions. The Sunnis fear the creation of a predominantly Shiite region in the south of Iraq that would resemble the largely independent zone controlled by the Kurds in the north. The Sunnis would be left with swaths of the country devoid of the oil reserves in the other regions.
Sadr's bloc broke with Hakim's party to support the Sunni boycott on Sunday. That move prompted Hakim to meet later in the day with Sadr and then with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, although he declined to describe their conversations.
"We stand to benefit from federalism because the Sadr movement enjoys wide support of the majority of the people in the center and the south," said Nouri, the Sadr aide. "But we will not accept that, because national interest is above any other interest."
The speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, warned political leaders "not to fish in troubled waters" on the subject of federalism, a principle established in the constitution approved by voters last fall.
"Federated Iraq is a principle that is agreed to in Iraq," he said. "This is not alterable."
The tumult came on another day of bloodshed in Iraq. A man wearing an explosive belt boarded a minibus carrying Iraqi army recruits Monday morning and detonated it when the vehicle reached a recruiting center in western Baghdad, according to Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Abbas of the Interior Ministry. Abbas said 15 people were killed and 18 wounded.
The genocide trial of Saddam Hussein resumed on Monday with the former Iraqi leader calling the tribunal an attempt to pit Arabs against Kurds. Prosecutors accuse Hussein of trying to annihilate the country's Kurdish minority during the Anfal campaign in the 1980s, in which as many as 180,000 people were killed.
"The intention is to create a split in the Iraqi population," a visibly angered Hussein said of the case. "This is a preparation to divide Iraq."
When the judge assured him the country would not be carved up, Hussein responded: "Of course not. Iraq is not 50 years old or 200 years old. It's 9,000 years old, and Iraqis won't be divided."
Katrin Michael, a former peshmerga militia fighter in Kurdistan who now lives in Virginia, testified at the trial about the horror in her village when Iraqi planes dropped chemical weapons.
"I saw hundreds of people with tearing eyes vomiting," she said. "They had pain in their stomach. They were screaming from the pain. People were collapsing because they lost their sight."
She lost her sight for three days. When she opened her eyes, Michael testified, she saw a man named Abu Rizgar who had gone totally blind. He had heavy blisters on his back, and he couldn't speak properly. Later that day, he died.
"His voice is still in my ears," Michael said.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, K.I. Ibrahim and Salih Dehima in Baghdad contributed to this report.