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Iraq parliament delays divisive federal debate

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Reuters: Iraq’s parliament delayed debate on Sunday on a divisive draft law on federalism that minority Sunni Arabs fear could lead to the partition of Iraq and stoke sectarian conflict that has already killed thousands. By Mussab Al-Khairalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s parliament delayed debate on Sunday on a divisive draft law on federalism that minority Sunni Arabs fear could lead to the partition of Iraq and stoke sectarian conflict that has already killed thousands.

The Shi’ite-sponsored draft federalism law sparked an uproar in the chamber last week when some Shi’ite lawmakers tried to force debate on the potentially explosive issue, angering politicians from the once politically dominant Sunni minority.

“We stand against this law. This law wants to divide Iraq,” Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, said on Sunday.

But Kurdish and Shi’ite politicians drew their own battle lines, insisting the draft law, which was to have had its first reading on Sunday, would go before parliament on September 19.

“We will not retreat,” parliament’s deputy Speaker, Khaled al-Attiya, a Shi’ite, said, although not all Shi’ite parties back the draft law.

The dispute came amid rising tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite sects that has unleashed a wave of bloodletting and raised fears of all-out civil war.

The influence of neighboring Shi’ite Iran has concerned the United States and Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was due to pay his first official visit to Tehran on Monday. But Iraqi and Iranian officials said the trip could be delayed a day or two, and Iraq’s envoy to Iran blamed “technical reasons”.

Washington accuses Iran of giving logistical and financial support to Shi’ite militias in Iraq, something Tehran denies.

The possible breakup of Iraq has been a common theme amid the sectarian strife and unrelenting Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation and Maliki’s government.

Iraq’s parliament faces an October 22 deadline to pass a law that defines how Iraq’s 18 provinces can join with others to form autonomous federal regions. The deadline was set under the federal constitution passed last year despite Sunni opposition.

But Sunnis, concentrated in Iraq’s resource-poor central and western provinces, are opposed to such a move, fearing it would seal their political doom by giving Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north control of much of Iraq’s oil.

DIVISION OF IRAQ

Several Shi’ite leaders, notably Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the powerful SCIRI party, a partner in the government, have called for a Shi’ite “super-region” of nine provinces to be created in the south.

Some analysts say the failure of the constitution to put a limit on the number of provinces that can form a region is a recipe for disaster and could lead to the partition of Iraq.

“This law is a step toward the division of Iraq and we want to draw the attention of all Arab and Islamic nations to the dangers of this law … Federalism is a step toward the division of Iraq,” Sunni leader Dulaimi said.

Sunnis leaders want a review of the constitution that was promised to them to win their participation in last December’s elections and accuse Shi’ites of being “in a hurry”.

But Shi’ite and Kurdish politicians said on Sunday the draft law was simply intended to meet the October 22 constitutional deadline and did not set the clock ticking on the formation of new federal regions.

“Any attempt to centralize Iraq will lead to the breakup and disintegration of Iraq,” warned senior Kurdish politician Fuad Masum. Ethnic Kurds, who have their own autonomous region in northern Kurdistan, back the Shi’ite proposal.

Dominant in post-war Iraq’s politics, Shi’ites and Kurds were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, who is set to go back to court on Monday to face genocide charges for a 1988 military campaign against Kurds. Six former commanders also face charges.

In fresh violence on Sunday, police called to the premises of an electronics company in Baghdad’s Karrada district found the bodies of three employees and a cache of weapons that included mortars, bombs and rockets.

A car bomb in the same street killed three people and wounded 14, mostly police, police said.

In Baquba north of Baghdad, sectarian tensions sparked fierce clashes between two Sunni and Shi’ite neighborhoods that killed five people and wounded 14, police said. A police general in the same town was shot dead by gunmen as he was out shopping.

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