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IRAQ - Federalism Approved.

Iraqi MPs at the House of Representatives on Oct. 11 approved a law which lays out a mechanism for forming federal regions. The decision was taken in a session boycotted by the main critics of federalism and is likely to cause further acrimony over an issue which has polarised Sunnis and Shi'ites for much of the last year. The estimated 184 MPs present all voted for the law, allowing it to pass with a majority in the 275-member parliament. MPs from the Sunni-dominated Iraq Accordance Front (IAF) stayed away in an attempt to prevent a quorum, as did legislators from the radical Shi'ite Sadrist movement and Fadhila al-Islamiya party.

Formation of a southern federal region has been championed by the mainstream Shi'ite Islamist parties, in particular the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the key faction of al-Da'wa al-Islamiya to which PM Maliki belongs. However, Sunnis say federalism will split the country at the expense of their oil-poor heartland in the middle of Iraq and allow Iran to increase its influence in the south. The Sadrists oppose the law because they are ideologically committed to a strong central government. The law would allow Iraq's 18 governorates to hold referenda on whether to amalgamate into federal regions similar to the Kurdistan self-rule zone in the north, which has its own regional government (KRG) and security forces.

Shi'ite and Sunni leaders agreed last month to delay the law's implementation for at least 18 months, postponing creation of any new autonomous regions until 2008. Federalism is likely to continue to be a divisive issue in parliament, with Sunnis pressing for amendments to the constitution which might still annul the creation of new regions. The issue is currently under study by a parliamentary committee.

IAF leader Adnan al-Dulaimi said: "This is the beginning of the plan to divide Iraq. We had hoped that the problems of sectarian violence would be resolved. We hope there won't be an increase in violence". The head of the main Shi'ite grouping which dominates parliament, the United Arab Alliance (UIA), SCIRI leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, praised the passage of the bill and denounced Sunni opposition to federalism. Hakim and other Shi'ites suspect the Sunnis to be still working on control over the whole of Iraq, as the Ba'thist regime did.

Sunni Arabs largely voted against the constitution passed in October 2005 because it outlined the federal system. The law allows a process for forming regions, requiring any province considering joining a region to hold a referendum, if a third of the provincial legislators request it. But the law passed on Oct. 15 includes a provision that regions cannot be formed for another 18 months, a concession to Sunni concerns.

Critics have warned that moves for federalism will continue to fuel Shi'ite-Sunni violence. Dozens of corpses are found in Baghdad every day, usually riddled with bullets and bearing signs of torture. Huge explosions rattled Baghdad on Oct. 10 as a mortar shell fired by Neo-Salafi insurgents struck an ammunition holding area at a US base in the southern part of the city. No injuries were reported.

Pentagon Maintains Troop Level: US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker on Oct. 11 said the Pentagon was planning for the possibility that it might have to keep current American troop levels in Iraq until 2010. He said he was not predicting the situation in Iraq would require maintaining current levels of about 140,000 US troops for the entire period. But he said the army needed to plan for that possibility. Reuters on Oct. 12 quoted him as saying: "This is not a prediction that things are going poorly or better. It's just that I have to have enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot".

His comments came less than a month before the crucial mid-term US Congressional elections. The Republicans are in jeopardy of losing control of one, or both, houses of Congress, partly because of falling support for the war. The US military and Iraqi forces continue to struggle to stop the violence, as the American military death toll continues to climb.

President Bush on Oct. 11 acknowledged that attacks on US soldiers had increased, but argued that despite the violence Iraq will still be making progress. Bush did suggested that there would be some flexibility in US policy on Iraq, partly in response to recent comments by James Baker, the former secretary of state who is leading a bipartisan workgroup on Iraq, that there were other options between remaining for the long haul and cutting and running. The Bush administration had hoped to reduce US troop numbers to about 100,000 by end-2006, partly in an attempt to convince the US public that the military was making progress in Iraq. But those plans have had to be shelved because of the growing level of sectarian violence in Iraq - particularly Baghdad.

The Pentagon recently extended the tour of some soldiers in Iraq to deal with the increasing violence. Gen. John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, recently said he expected current US troop levels would be maintained until at least the spring of next year. Gen Abizaid in July told Congress Iraq could descend into full-scale civil war and warned that curbing the violence in Baghdad was the key to avoiding such an outcome. Speaking at the Pentagon on Oct. 11, Gen. George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, said the situation in Iraq remained "difficult and complex" but said he did not agree Iraq was already mired in civil war. He added that Shi'ite extremists, death squads and militias comprised the "greatest current threats" in Iraq.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Date:Oct 16, 2006
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