A New Twist in Iraq's Shi'ite Power Struggle

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Matt Cardy / Getty

British troops patrol in Basra.

Eighteen months after the U.S. troop surge aimed at creating the security necessary for Iraqis to resolve their political conflicts, those political conflicts are threatening to become even more complicated. Besides the Arab-Kurd and Sunni-Shi'ite divides, there has long been a struggle among rival political parties for supremacy among the Shi'ites. Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently called for amendments to Iraq's constitution to strengthen the central government's power at the expense of the country's 18 provinces. This week, Maliki's rivals in the southern Shi'ite bastion of Basra submitted a petition demanding a referendum in the oil-soaked province aimed to turning it into a semi-autonomous federal region akin to Kurdistan.

Federalism is a deeply divisive issue among Iraqis. The Constitution adopted under U.S. occupation stipulates that any of the 18 provinces, except Baghdad, can combine to form regions similar to the northern Kurdish-run zone, which has been semi-autonomous since 1991. While the Kurds insist upon the principle, the Sunnis have traditionally been strongly opposed. Among the Shi'ites, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) has favored the idea a super region in the south, but the movement of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has insisted on a strong central state. But the proposal to turn Basra into an autonomous region is comes not from the Supreme Council, but rather from a coalition of Shi'ite independents and the small Fadila Party, which dominates in the province. (See TIME's pictures of the week)

While the Supreme Council — whose idea of a super-region is far more expansive than just Basra, and whose concern would obviously be to create a political entity in which it could rule — is sitting on the fence in response to the Basra autonomy proposal, the Sadrists are furious. "It's playing with fire that could engulf all of Iraq," says Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr's movement in the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf. "The result might be the division of Iraq if it's forced now, during this period."

The autonomy proposal is being spearheaded by independent Shi'ite lawmaker and former governor of the province, Wael Abdel-Latif al-Fadel, and its timing — Iraqis are to vote in January in what promise to be hotly contested provincial elections — is sure to escalate political tensions. Al-Fadel, a 58-year-old former judge, has filed a petition with the Iraqi Electoral Commission containing 34,800 signatures, or 2% of the province's population (as required by law). After the Commission publicizes the official request through the media this week, its backers must garner an additional 139,200 signatures to meet the required 10% of the province's voting population in order to call a referendum. The central government is then obliged to hold the vote within 15 days. "If we get 51% of the votes, Basra will become a region," al-Fadel says.

But even with the backing of Basra's influential tribal sheikhs and the Fadila Party, winning a majority won't be easy in the face of concerted opposition from Maliki's Dawa Party and his sometime ally-sometime foe Sadr. Less certain is the reaction from the Supreme Council, which has long favored a semi-autonomous nine-province "super region" in the south (which it would have a fair shot at governing) rather than a smaller one in Basra, governed by Fadila. "We are not participating in this because we are busy with other things," says parliamentarian Redha Taki, the head of SIIC's political relations department. He would not be drawn on why his party is not supporting al-Fadel's initiative, and few other senior members of the Supreme Council would offer public comment. The Supreme Council holds very little sway in Basra, and would fear seeing its vast oil riches, key to the economic viability of their own "super region" project, falling under the control of a separate entity.

The Sunnis, who ruled dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, are also hostile, having already had to confront the unpalatable prospect of the country's northern oil fields falling under the control of the Kurdish region. "This will create many problems over water rights, the delineation of borders, oil fields, mineral resources, this all needs to be considered," says Hashem al-Ta'ie, head of parliament's regional and provincial committee and a member of the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc. "Look at the problems between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government."

The Kurds have signed contracts with foreign oil companies to exploit oil fields in their region, contracts that Baghdad's Oil Ministry says are illegal. In his comments last week, Prime Minister al-Maliki made it clear that the central government must have full responsibility over security, sovereignty and "other issues". "If there is no clear vision of the political system and sovereignty, we will turn into real governments fighting each other," he said.

But al-Fadel insists that a federal region of Basra will not contradict the notion of a strong, central government and that the district's wealth will be shared. "We don't want a defense ministry, or interior or finance ministries, a currency or diplomatic relations," he says. "We just want services for the area; water, sewage, health, education. The central government has failed to provide these." The prime minister cannot "create a state based on his ideas — the state is based on the constitution," al-Fadel adds. "The ideas of one man are no longer the foundation for creating a state. Let the people of Basra decide." The people of Basra, of course, will likely present different views on the matter, at the urging of rival political parties. And the resulting tension may yet present new security challenges in Iraq.