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Iraqi Factions Push for Regional Autonomy

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For the last few days in Iraq there have been intense negotiations over the draft constitution. It's supposed to be presented to the National Assembly on Monday. Many issues are in play; among the most prominent are demands by the Kurds of northern Iraq to enshrine their autonomy in the constitution by creating a federation. Today Shiites weighed in with similar demands for themselves. A top Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, said Shias in Iraq's South want to create a similar entity of their own. We're joined from our Baghdad studio by NPR's Philip Reeves.

Philip, what precisely did al-Hakim have to say?

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, he stood up before a crowd in Najaf, which is the Shiite holy city, and he told them that he believed that it's necessary to form one whole region in the South. He's an important figure, an extremely important figure. He's head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an organization known as SCIRI. It's one of the most influential elements within the Shiite-controlled central government. And, intriguingly, he made these remarks after meeting Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shia and by far the most influential religious leader in the country, although it's not clear whether these words had Sistani's support.

NPR afterwards contacted a spokesman for SCIRI asking for them to enlighten us as to what he actually meant, and they said that they're envisaging an autonomous region across nine Southern provinces that more or less comprises the entire South. And that would, therefore, be what one analyst has described as a sort of mirror image to the autonomous entity that the Kurds are seeking to establish in the North. And, of course, crucially, it would give the Southern Shia a major claim on the oil revenues from the oil fields of the South.

NORRIS: So what was the reaction to his speech?

REEVES: The strongest reaction by far came from the Sunni Arabs. They're adamantly opposed to the idea. Put simply, their fear is that the Kurds of the North and the Shia of the South would have their own autonomous states within a federal Iraq, and that means that they would control the lion's share of the oil. But the Sunnis in the middle would be left with the impoverished rump of the country.

Now NPR spoke today to one of the leading Sunnis in this process, Saleh al-Mutlaq. He's one of 15 Sunnis drafted onto a committee that's writing the constitution. He was clearly unhappy. He said--now I'm quoting--that "The Shia have finally revealed their hands" and that this amounts to a move to what he described as `sectarian federalism.' And he said it's what the Sunnis were always afraid of.

In addition, I suspect the US will be somewhat uneasy about these developments, not least because SCIRI, which is extremely powerful at local government level in the South, has strong ties traditionally to Iran.

NORRIS: Has there been an official response from the central government?

REEVES: Well, there has. Now this is intriguing because the current transitional government of Iraq is dominated by Shia. They form the largest group within the population, and they, therefore, acquired the largest bloc in parliament. So I suspect that what we are now seeing is the contours of a split between the Shia. A spokesman for the prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Jafari, said that these demands by Hakim were, quote, "unacceptable and a bad idea."

NORRIS: Philip, in light of everything that's going on, do you think the draft constitution will be completed on time? There is, after all, only three days left.

REEVES: Well, that's the $64,000 question. I mean, participants keep telling us that they're optimistic. At the same time those involved are beginning to drop hints that they may not meet the deadline. They say they may go to the National Assembly and ask for a two-week extension. Another alternative is to postpone the tough issues like federal Iraq and leave them out of the draft constitution. Now that's what the Sunni Arabs would like to see happen. They want these issues pushed back to the next parliament in December, in which they hope they'll have greater representation.

NORRIS: Philip Reeves, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

NORRIS: NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.