Iraq security chief warns of civil war over federalism

Fri Aug 19, 2005 3:16 PM BST
By Michael Georgy and Luke Baker

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's national security adviser said on Friday Iraq would descend into civil war if federalism was not entrenched in the constitution.

"Without federalism it means that no community interest has been addressed or fulfilled and therefore different communities will try to find and defend and fight for their rights," Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told Reuters in an interview.

"I am worried about that. Yes. Absolutely. With a civil war you can't say 'today we don't have a civil war, tomorrow a civil war erupted'. Civil war creeps into the country very gradually."

But underscoring deep divisions in Iraqi politics, several thousand supporters of a Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr marched through a district of the capital Baghdad denouncing federalism, saying it would rip Iraq apart.

Politicians are struggling to overcome sensitive issues such as federalism to meet an extended August 22 deadline for presenting a draft constitution to parliament.

Kurds want to expand autonomy in their de facto state in the north, some Shi'ites are pushing for their own region in the south, and Sunni Arabs are fiercely opposed to federalism.

January's election boycott left Sunnis with little representation in parliament and, as a result, limited influence in negotiations over the charter.

But Iraq's government, led by Shi'ites and Kurds, wants to draw Sunnis into politics in a bid to defuse the Sunni insurgency so the minority sect has some leverage.

Differences emerging among Shi'ites could further complicate efforts to strike a deal.

"Federalism is very good for the Sunnis as well. Just imagine we have three provinces in the (Sunni region) triangle coming together in one region and that region enjoys all the rights of Kurdistan for example," said Rubaie, a member of the Shi'ite Dawa party, part of the ruling coalition.

"It is a federal system we are after and I think this is the only insurance policy for the unity of Iraq."

Supporters of Sadr, who has led two uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces, gathered in one of their largest protests in recent months to reject federalism.

"No! No! to division", "Yes! Yes! to unity" chanted the crowds as they marched through the poor Sadr City neighbourhood of northeastern Baghdad and Khadamiya and Bayaa, two other mainly Shi'ite districts.

Facing relentless suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnappings, Iraqi leaders are banking on a constitution and elections planned for December to stabilise the country but sectarian tensions are fracturing politics.

Rubaie shares the view of top Shi'ite leaders like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who suggested Shi'ites should carve out their own federal region in southern Iraq.

Friday's demonstration seemed to show that many poor, urban Shi'ites -- Sadr's major support base -- disagree with Hakim's vision of a federal Shi'ite state.

"Moqtada al-Sadr's concern is that Iraq must be united, not divided," said Fatah al-Sheikh, a Shi'ite member of parliament who is closely allied to Sadr and led one of the marches.

Sadr has maintained a low profile since his Mehdi Army militia fought U.S. troops in the southern city of Najaf last year.

Sunnis, once dominant under Saddam Hussein, want a central government with tight control over oil resources near Kurdish areas in the north and in the Shi'ite south.

Moslem preachers stepped up a campaign to involve Sunni Arabs in Shi'ite-dominated politics on Friday, telling worshippers it was their duty to vote on Iraq's constitution in an October referendum.

"I call on you to register your names in order to vote over the constitution and in the elections," Abdel-Sattar al-Jumaily told worshippers in Falluja, a Sunni city west of Baghdad.

"We face a big challenge and need votes against the constitution if it does not take into account our Islamic and Arab feelings," said Jumaily, who accused the authorities of conspiring to keep Sunni voter numbers down.