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IRAQ - Focusing On The Non-Oil Sector - Part 6- Federalism Is Spreading.

The fever of federalism in Iraq has begun to rise as the pace for drafting a new constitution for Iraq picks up speed, with the idea of regional autonomy spreading to all of the country's 18 provinces. Is this to emerge for a unified Iraq on the German model, for example, or a prelude to the country's dismemberment?

As the US is in charge in Iraq and remains the sole super-power in the world, it would be logical to expect it to succeed. For if it does not succeed in Iraq - i.e., if America's official Iraq project fails - it may no longer qualify as the sole super-power in the world, in terms of moral leadership.

Can the US prevent the partitioning of Iraq? Judging by the tone of President George W. Bush's speech on June 28, marking the first anniversary of the handing over of Iraq's "sovereignty" to an Iraqi interim government, the answer is 50-50. The US still has by far the strongest strike power in the world; but the number of armed forces at its disposal now is so dangerously limited that no one can tell for sure whether it can or cannot.

It was on the basis of this 50-50 situation that the conservative wing of the Shiite theocracy in Iran staged an inhouse coup behind the June 24 election of an ultra-conservative, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, as president of the Islamic Republic. It was a coup not only against the pragmatists of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the reformists of Muhammad Khatami, whose second and final term ends in the first week of August. It was also a coup against Bush's plans to democratise the "Greater Middle East" (GME) - including Iran (see news2cIranPoliticsJuly11-05).

Is President Bush implementing a plan to partition the GME into almost 100 mini-states, so that "Greater Israel" becomes the region's super-power? If so, he is working on what his neo-conservative (neo-con) advisers, who are mostly Jewish radicals like Ariel Sharon, may eventually see the US either on top of their PNAC project or isolated from the GME.

The chances of either scenario prevailing in the GME will remain 50-50 until one can see who will succeed President Bush at the White House. That the prospects for the GME, and for conventional oil, will be good or bad will not be known before the result of the next US presidential elections has become clear.

Autonomy For Oil-Rich South: With the Aug. 15 deadline for writing a new constitution bearing down, powerful, mostly secular Shiite politicians are pushing for the creation of an autonomous region in the oil-rich south of Iraq, challenging the country's central authority. The key lobbyist in Baghdad among them is Ahmad Al-Chalabi, one of three deputy prime ministers who has been keen on getting involved in Iraq's petroleum sector.

Another group of federalists, mostly academics, disagrees with both the southern plan and the Kurdish plan for autonomy in the oil-rich north of the country. This group is backed by the US and wants a more moderate system of federalism which would divide power between Baghdad and the existing 18 provinces, or similar-sized areas, rather than creating large regions. Dhia' Al-Asadi, a spokesman for this group and a supervisor in a project promoting local governance which has received financing from the American government, says "the Kurdish model of federalism is not a successful one", arguing: "It is not a federal region right now. It is almost a separate country".

The politicians promoting autonomy for the oil-rich south note that the long-impoverished southern provinces have never got their fair share of Iraq's oil money, even though the bulk of the country's oil reserves lie there and near Basra, at the head of what the Arabs call the Arabian and Iran calls the Persian Gulf. They say they cannot trust anyone holding power in Baghdad because of the decades of oppression under the Sunni/Baathist Arab government of Saddam Hussein.

The New York Times (NYT) on June 30 quoted Bakr Al-Yasseen, a former foe of Saddam who spent years in exile in Syria, as saying: "We want to destroy the central system that connects the entire country to the capital". He is a chief organiser of the autonomy campaign - backed by Chalabi, a one-time favourite of the Pentagon and the scion of a prominent Shiite family from the south, among others.

American officials have remained publicly silent on the matter. The interim constitution which the Americans co-wrote last year says Iraq must adopt a federal system "to avoid the concentration of power". The NYT quoted a US official as saying: "We want a moderate federalist system", adding it is up to the Iraqis to figure out exactly how governing powers should be divided.

Yasseen, who has ties to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, is demanding for the south the same broad powers which the Kurds currently have, including an independent parliament, ministries and regional military and security forces. The Kurds have long demanded a strong measure of autonomy in any future Iraqi state.

The issue of an autonomous south is relatively new and complicates already heated discussions on federalism in the new constitution. Although the US has warned against a delay in the drafting of a new constitution for the whole of Iraq, it has recently agreed to a six-month extension to the Aug. 15 deadline; but only if this is justified by all the parties concerned.

The religious Shiite Arab parties and the Sunni Arabs have generally opposed Kurdish autonomy, but the emergence of a southern drive for greater regional independence could lend important support to the Kurds' quest. In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, banners have appeared on the streets in recent weeks calling for an autonomous region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Academics and local politicians in the south are holding meetings at night to try to define their demands. Some talk on the phone to members of the constitutional committee in Baghdad on an almost daily basis.

While religious Shiite Arab parties now dominate the national government, many people in Basra fear that the parties may not adequately defend the rights of the south and worry about the rise of another authoritarian government, or rather a conservative Shiite theocracy like the one in Iran.

Yasseen said: "There's no democracy in Iraq". He expressed the deep suspicions of moderate and secular Shiite Arabss, adding: "Anyone who says there's democracy has a little Saddam in his head. He wants to become a Saddam".

Chalabi, a deputy prime minister in Dr. Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari's central government in Baghdad, and Shaikh Abdul Kareem Al-Muhammadawi, a prominent Shiite member of the National Assembly, are planning to propose a regional vote on the question of southern autonomy in October, at the same time as a national referendum on the constitution. Ali Faisal Al-Lami, an aide to both politicians, believes that eventually three southern provinces would merge; and all three are rich in oil: Basra, Thi-Qar and Meissan.

Chalabi comes from the southern city of Nasiriya, capital of Thi-Qar. Although he is distrusted by many Iraqis, Chalabi could use his family and political ties to wield considerable influence in an autonomous south. Among his allies in Washington are leading neo-cons involved in policy planning for the GME. Chalabi also has allies in Meissan, a southern Shiite province bordering with Iran and located north of Basra.

The Shiite advocates of autonomy say that, while the south has 80 to 90% of Iraq's oil reserves, the country's only ports and its richest date palm groves, the neglect under Saddam's rule is evident: Many of the avenues in Basra resemble garbage dumps, open sewage floods some streets and shantytowns dot the landscape.

Shiite federalists say the south should have partial or full control over how its oil wealth and other incomes are shared. They want to control the process of allocating fields for development, negotiating and signing PSAs with the firms to be involved, allocating and awarding new blocks for oil and gas exploration, and the midstream and downstream projects in the south. They want control over the Oil Ministry's South Oil Co. (SOC), just as the Kurds want control over North Oil Co. (NOC) in Kirkuk.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 11, 2005
Previous Article:IRAQ - The Violence Continues.
Next Article:IRAQ - Kurdish Support.

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