Federalism Plan Dead, Says Iraqi Speaker

By Amit R. Paley and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

BAGHDAD, Sept. 12 -- The speaker of the Iraqi parliament said Tuesday that a controversial plan to partition the country into three autonomous regions is politically dead.

Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said in an interview that legislation to implement a concept known as federalism, which threatened to collapse the country's fragile multi-sect government, would likely be postponed indefinitely after a meeting of political leaders on Wednesday.

The federalism plan would create a Shiite region in southern Iraq much like the autonomous zone in the north controlled by the Kurds. Sunnis have generally opposed the plan, on grounds that it would leave them only with vast swaths of desert in the country's middle, devoid of the oil reserves in the other regions.

The constitution that Iraq adopted last fall allows for a form of federalism. Sunni parties supported the charter only reluctantly and joined the current government on condition of a resumption of federalism discussions, in which they hoped to kill the concept.

"If federalism is to be applied now, it will lead to the secession of the south and the establishment of an Islamist extremist state in the center of the country," said Mashhadani, an outspoken Sunni Arab who is the third-ranking official in the government. "It is not possible to venture or to start the application of federalism now."

"Look, Iraqi blood is more important than federalism," he said.

When asked to predict the likely outcome of Wednesday's meeting of political leaders, he said: "We could agree on the principle and then postpone the topic for four years."

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite political coalition in Iraq, is the strongest backer of legislation that would begin translating the constitution's vague concepts of federalism into law.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Tuesday, Hakim issued a full defense of federalism, which he described as a basic constitutional right of all Iraqis. Analysts say Hakim hopes to become the leader of the Shiite region, which would comprise about nine of Iraq's 18 provinces.

"We believe federalism is one of the administrative methods that would help the people gain their rights, undo the injustices, and prevent discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, sect or religion," Hakim said.

But support for the plan began to erode after a vast array of Sunni, Shiite and secular groups boycotted parliament on Sunday to protest the plan. Mashhadani said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, had ordered Shiite politicians to back off from the plan in order to prevent bitter infighting.

Mashhadani said the country is not prepared for federalism because its government is not strong enough to provide security and services, and because of troubled relationships with some neighboring countries.

"The United States is a federated system and it is leading the world. But this was after the Civil War," Mashhadani said. "So must we go through a civil war in order to achieve federalism?"

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in his first state visit to Iran, discussed ways to improve the security situation in Iraq with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. American officials have accused Tehran of fomenting violence in Iraq by supporting Shiite militias.

"Iran will provide assistance to the Iraqi government to establish full security," Ahmadinejad said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "We believe strengthening the Iraqi government is tantamount to promoting security, peace and friendship in that country."

Violence continued across Iraq on Tuesday. At least 32 people were killed or their bodies were found in separate incidents in different parts of the country, authorities said. In northern Baghdad, 14 students were kidnapped after completing their exams, the Iraqi military said. No further details were released.

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Baghdad and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Naseer Nouri and Salih Dehema in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company