BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A major Shiite politician called Thursday for a Shiite federal region, backing Kurdish demands for a decentralized Iraq but alarming Sunni Arabs who fear the loss of vast revenues from the country”s major major oil-producing regions.
The call was made before thousands of cheering Shiites by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the biggest Shiite political party, only four days before the deadline for parliament to approve the new constitution.
It could complicate U.S. efforts to have the Iraqis produce a constitution that will win the endorsement of Sunni Arabs in the Oct. 15 referendum and draw them away from the insurgency.
The U.S. military announced Thursday that another U.S. Marine had been killed in a roadside bombing the night before in the western city of Ramadi.
During a speech to cheering crowds in Najaf, al-Hakim endorsed calls for a federated Iraq, saying federalism was necessary "to keep a political balance in the country" after decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein”s centralized regime.
"We believe that it is necessary to form one territory that includes the south and central Iraq," al-Hakim said, referring to areas where Shiites form the majority.
"The constitution must allow the formation of regional governments along with the united central government based on the principles of equality and justice," al-Hakim added. "We must not let this chance to accomplish this goal to go away."
The comments from al-Hakim, leader of the country”s biggest Shiite party, drew a sharp response from prominent Sunni Arab politicians.
"We were surprised with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim”s declarations today," Saleh al-Mutlaq, a member of the constitutional commission, said. "Time is running out and such declarations should be much more calm. We don”t have time for such maneuvers."
Ayad al-Samarai, an official of the largest Sunni political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said al-Hakim”s remarks threatened an agreement because they opened up numerous side issues, including the distribution of national wealth, which would have to be resolved if the deadline were to be met.
Al-Mutlaq and other Sunnis had suggested that a decision on federalism should be delayed until a new parliament is elected in December. That parliament is expected to have more Sunni Arab members than the current one because so many Sunnis boycotted the January election.
But the Kurds have demanded federalism to protect the regional administration which they have run in three northern provinces since 1991. The Kurds also want to expand their self-ruled region to include the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, from which thousands of Kurds were expelled by Saddam.
Most of Iraq”s vast oil wealth is concentrated in the Kirkuk area of the north and the Basra area of the south.
Sunnis fear they could lose out on Iraq”s oil riches under a loosely federated system.
Even if the constitution is approved, it could face an uncertain fate in the October referendum if large numbers of Sunnis oppose it. Although Sunni Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the population, they form the majority in at least four of the 18 provinces.
If two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces vote against the constitution, it will be defeated under rules set down in the current interim constitution.
Chief government spokesman Laith Kubba said the government was anxious to promote national unity and rejects "the concept of constructing the government on religious, ethnic and national basis." In an Internet statement Thursday, al-Qaida in Iraq, the country”s most feared terrorist group, threatened anyone involved in drafting the "illegal constitution" and vowed to attack voting centers during the October referendum.
"Since the constitution is devoid of religion, those who are writing it and propagating it are renegades," the statement said. "Therefore the religious court of the al-Qaida in Iraq decided to fight both those who write the constitution or propagate it and to attack referendum centers."
Al-Hakim”s speech was delivered at ceremonies commemorating the second anniversary of the assassination of his elder brother Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who died in a huge bombing in Najaf in 2003.
The younger al-Hakim is close to Iraq”s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had been reluctant to support federalism. Al-Sistani conferred Wednesday night with al-Hakim and radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr in a bid for Shiite unity.
Although al-Sistani has issued no statement about federalism, an official close to the ayatollah said his silence should be interpreted as support. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under rules imposed on the ayatollah”s entourage.
"The Shiite community feels in danger," the official said. "If Shiites are going to be threatened, they have many cards to play. And if Shiites are going to be sidelined, they will not lay down."
At the same time, the official said that al-Sistani does not support Kurdish claims on Kirkuk.
"Al-Sistani rejects that Kirkuk be used as a mean of pressure in drafting the constitution," he said. "Its identity should be determined by all Iraqis and all the people of Iraq have a share of Kirkuk. "He does not accept that Arabs be deported from Kirkuk."
Nevertheless, government officials said the leadership is trying its best to resolve the issues by the Monday deadline.
"Every group is saying that they have stands that they cannot abandon because they are ”red lines” but in the end, everyone is going to make some concessions," presidential spokesman Kamran Qaradaghi said. "Meetings are taking place because the political leaders want to reach unanimity and don”t want to sideline any group."
Insurgent attacks have continued during the protracted deliberations. More than 40 U.S. soldiers have been killed this month, most of them due to bombings. At least 1,842 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
However, a senior U.S. officer said Thursday that suicide attacks and car bombings have decreased in effectiveness the past few months. "Less than 25 percent of those attacks have been effective and have resulted in a casualty, effective meaning resulted in a casualty, either a coalition force casualty, an Iraqi security forces casualty and Iraqi civilian casualty," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, deputy chief of staff for Multinational Forces in Iraq.