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Sunnis See Iran’s Hand in Call for Federalism

Times Staff Writer

As the deadline bore down on Iraqi leaders drafting a new constitution, some participants said a deal seemed within reach. Then out of nowhere, they said, came a demand from a key Shiite politician.

Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the main party in the powerful Shiite parliamentary bloc, spoke before a crowd of supporters Aug. 11 in Najaf and called for a Shiite autonomous region consisting of Iraq’s nine oil-rich southern provinces. Hakim, who once headed a militia trained and nurtured by Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard, called the mini-state a “sacred” goal.

Sunni Arabs were flabbergasted when Hakim’s political allies brought up the issue at constitutional negotiations. Long suspicious of Iran’s intentions, they charged that the Shiite theocracy was trying to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs.

“It appeared all of a sudden,” said Iyad Samarrai, a member of the country’s leading Sunni party. He serves on the constitutional committee that had to extend the deadline a week, until Monday, largely over Sunni Arab refusal to endorse a weaker central government. “We interpreted this as an Iranian push.”

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Iraqis in impoverished southern provinces have long said they would like more control over local resources and revenue. They sit atop most of Iraq’s energy reserves, but their cities and villages were neglected for decades under successive Sunni-led governments in Baghdad.

But Sunnis fear that the federalism advocated by Hakim is a trick to give Iran de facto control over the south.

“The issue of federalism for the south was always on the table, but not on this scale and at this speed,” said Hassan Zeidan, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that has representatives on the constitutional panel.

Sunnis may yet come together with Shiites and ethnic Kurds to approve an Iraqi constitution that enshrines federalism by Monday’s deadline. But their perception that Iran was behind the call for autonomy for Iraq’s south has hampered efforts to ease worries that federalism would be used to dismember Iraq.

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“The Sunnis fear federalism in the south,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee. The Kurdish north has enjoyed de facto autonomy since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “The south is already close to Iran. Now they fear it’s getting closer,” he said.

Iran and Iraq share a long border and centuries of rivalry. Iranian Shiites are mostly of Persian descent, while Iraqi Shiites are Arab, clustered in the country’s south where three of the sect’s key shrines are located. In 1980, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, leading to an eight-year war of attrition that neither country’s emotionally scarred veterans have forgotten.

The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought new perils and opportunities for Iran, giving it a chance to build influence with the newly dominant Shiites and Kurds in Iraq while bringing arch-rival America to its border.

But Iran’s initial fears of the United States waned as U.S. soldiers became caught up in an insurgency led mostly by discontented Sunni Arabs. U.S. officials recently alleged that weapons were being smuggled from Iran into Iraq.

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In public statements, Iran’s leaders advocate a strong Iraq and accuse Americans and “Zionists” of trying to dismember it.

“The new Iraqi constitution could and ought to act as a document for proving and consolidating Iraq’s political integrity, independence as well as territorial integrity and uniformity,” Jomhouri Eslami, an Iranian hard-liner whose positions are considered close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s, said in an editorial last week.

After all, Iranian officials say, if Iraq were to fragment along ethnic and sectarian fault lines, it might inspire its own restive minorities -- which include Kurds, Arabs and Azerbaijanis -- to revolt.

But experts say Iran is playing a double game. Although it may publicly support a strong Iraq led by its old friends, it is simultaneously pushing it toward instability to keep the United States off balance, said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington.

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“Iran never takes ... a risk without a backup plan and plausible deniability,” she said.

“Tumult keeps Iraq weak, the U.S. tied down and distracted, and [Iran] might even gain a controllable ally in a semi-autonomous southern province.”

Wayne White, a former Iraq specialist in the State Department, pointed to ties between the Iranian government and Iraq’s transitional prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari.

“At a time in which efforts to draw the largest number of Sunni Arabs into the Iraqi political mainstream should take high priority, the two governments engaged in high-level diplomatic exchanges shortly after Jafari completed forming his government,” said White, who is with the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. Such moves are “sure to drive Sunni Arab suspicion and paranoia about continued, deep Iranian ties with Iraqi Shiites ever higher.”

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During constitutional committee meetings, Sunnis accused Shiites of doing Tehran’s bidding, said Suha Azzawi, a Sunni Arab member of the panel. A decentralized federal Iraq, they said, would give Iranians everything they wanted: a weak Baghdad, a pliant south and a bargaining chip to use against the U.S. and Gulf state Shiites.

Iraq’s Shiites say the federalism they advocate is a way to maintain the cultural character of the south, giving them the option of funding religious ceremonies instead of military parades, mosques instead of playgrounds.

So it came as a surprise when Shiite politicians haggling over the constitution demanded that states be given the right to do business with foreign countries. Many Iraqis suspect Iran would rather cut oil energy and business deals with friendly faces in border provinces than go through Baghdad.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd known for his discretion and diplomatic politesse, confirmed that he was uncharacteristically blunt when he broached the subject with Iranian counterparts.

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“We asked the Iranian government to change its policy on bilateral agreements it is signing with Iraqi [provinces] without the central government’s knowledge or involvement,” Zebari said last week in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper.

“We are asking the Iranian government not to enter into negotiations or joint understanding outside the central government’s authority.”

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders contributed to this report.


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