by Edward Wong
BASRA, Iraq, June 27 - With the Aug. 15 deadline for writing a new constitution bearing down, a cadre of powerful, mostly secular Shiite politicians is pushing for the creation of an autonomous region in the oil-rich south of Iraq, posing a direct challenge to the nation's central authority.
The politicians argue that the long-impoverished south has never gotten its fair share of the country's oil money, even though the bulk of Iraqi oil reserves lie near Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. They also say they cannot trust anyone holding power in Baghdad because of the decades of harsh oppression under the Sunni Arab government of Saddam Hussein.
"We want to destroy the central system that connects the entire country to the capital," said Bakr al-Yasseen, a former foe of Mr. Hussein who spent years in exile in Syria. He is one of the chief organizers of the autonomy campaign, which is supported by Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite and scion of a prominent Shiite family from the south, among others.
Mr. Yasseen, who has ties to Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and a Kurd, is demanding for the south the same broad powers that the Kurds now have, including an independent parliament, ministries and regional military force.
The Kurds have long demanded a strong measure of autonomy in a future Iraqi state. But the issue of an autonomous south is new, and complicates the already heated discussions on federalism in the new constitution. The religious Shiite 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.
Here 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 are holding meetings at night to try to define their demands. Some are talking on the phone to members of the constitutional committee in Baghdad on an almost daily basis.
While religious Shiite parties now dominate the national government, many people here fear that the parties may not adequately defend the rights of the south and worry about the rise of another authoritarian government, perhaps a conservative Islamic one.
"There's no democracy in Iraq," Mr. Yasseen said, expressing the deep suspicions of moderate and secular Shiites. "Anyone who says there's democracy has a little Saddam in his head. He wants to become a Saddam."
Mr. Chalabi and Sheik Abdul Kareem al-Muhammadawi, a prominent 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, said Ali Faisal al-Lami, an aide to both politicians. Mr. Chalabi comes from the southern city of Nasiriya, and though he is distrusted by many Iraqis, he could use his family and political ties to wield considerable influence in an autonomous south.
The advocates of autonomy say that while the south has 80 to 90 percent of Iraq's oil reserves, the country's only ports and its richest date palm groves, the neglect under Mr. Hussein's rule is painfully evident: many of the avenues here resemble garbage dumps, open sewage floods some streets, and shantytowns dot the landscape. The south should have partial or full control over how its oil wealth and other income are distributed, the federalists say.
Mr. Yasseen recently sent a letter to the National Assembly demanding that it begin discussing the possibility of southern autonomy. Dozens of Kurdish legislators the letter, forcing the issue to the table.
"I support a real region in the south," said Abdul Khalik Zengana, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish parties. "That will help our interests, and it will help to enhance federalism in Iraq. We bless this step. But we also think southern federalism should be decided on by a referendum of people in the south."
American officials have remained publicly silent on the matter. The interim constitution that the Americans co-wrote last year says Iraq must adopt a federal system "to avoid the concentration of power."
"We want a moderate federalist system," said an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because of government protocol. But it is up to the Iraqis to figure out exactly how governing powers should be divided, he added.
Any move toward federalism and autonomy is anathema to some religious Shiite parties, which made big gains in the January elections and now wield considerable power in both Baghdad and the south. They say they distrust American-backed goals, and they argue that Islamic states have historically favored a strong central government. Furthermore, they want all the oil revenues to be controlled from Baghdad.
The staunchest Shiite opponents of autonomy are Moktada al-Sadr, the young firebrand cleric who led two uprisings against the Americans, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another activist cleric who was close to Mr. Sadr's martyred father.
Mr. Yacoubi's Fadilah Party governs Basra, while Mr. Sadr's organization and his militia have a formidable presence here. The two groups believe that a legendary imam called the Mahdi will appear soon and cleanse the world of infidels, creating universal Islamic rule. Any division of powers is incompatible with that belief, they say, and could also lead to the breakup of Iraq.
"Most of the people reject the idea of autonomy," Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, a senior cleric in the Sadr organization, said in an interview here. "The idea of federalism arose after the occupation of Iraq, and it's the idea of the occupiers."
Countries in the region, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, are also likely to balk at the idea of an autonomous south, since those governments fear independence movements from ethnic or religious minorities in their own oil-rich areas. Kurdish autonomy already inspires anxiety in Turkey, Iran and Syria, all countries with significant Kurdish populations.
Mr. Yasseen and his allies envision a unified political south that would encompass the cities of Basra, Nasiriya and Amara. It would be one of a half-dozen autonomous regions in Iraq, each with powers approaching true sovereignty, as in Kurdistan.
Another group of federalists, most of them academics, disagree with that plan. They want a more moderate system of federalism that would give less sovereign power to outlying regions and preserve a stronger central government.
Some people think that "the Kurdish model of federalism is not a successful one," said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a spokesman for the group and a supervisor in a project promoting local governance that has financing from the American government. "It is not a federal region right now. It is almost a separate country."
Mr. Asadi said a delegation from the south would try to meet soon with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, and other religious leaders to try to persuade them to support federalism.
Ali Adeeb and Abdul-Razzaq al-Saeidy contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article
The New York Times
Posted June 30, 2005