Iraq's political leadership, in a rare show of unity, skewered a nonbinding U.S. Senate resolution passed last week that endorses the decentralization of Iraq through the establishment of semiautonomous regions.
The measure, which calls for a relatively weak central government and strong regional authorities in Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish areas, has touched a nerve here, raising fears that the United States is planning to partition Iraq.
"The Congress adopted this proposal based on an incorrect reading and unrealistic estimations of the history, present and future of Iraq," said Izzat Shahbandar, a member of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular parliamentary bloc.
He was reading from a statement also signed by preeminent Shiite Muslim religious parties and the main Sunni Arab bloc.
"It represents a dangerous precedent to establishing the nature of the relationship between Iraq and the U.S.A.," the statement said, "and shows the Congress as if it were planning for a long-term occupation by their country's troops."
The nonbinding measure was approved in Washington on Wednesday, and resentment appears to be building daily in Iraq. Passed by senators, 75 to 23, it supports a "federal system" that would create regions dominated by sect and ethnicity.
The measure was sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democratic candidate for president. Biden, along with Council of Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, has advocated that the country be divided up along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines.
Northern Iraq already has a semiautonomous region ruled by Kurds, but its leaders want to annex adjacent areas with dominant Kurdish populations.
The federalization idea, backed by some Democrats, is one of many proposals floated in the U.S., where the public has become disillusioned with the continuing violence in Iraq.
But the Senate resolution, whatever its intended effect, has backfired in Baghdad, where it has been interpreted in light of Iraq's history of foreign occupation, from the Ottoman Empire to Britain and now the United States. Iraqi political parties that have been deadlocked for months on issues such as a national oil law have rallied to defend the country's sovereignty and to repulse any effort by another country to shape Iraq's fate.
"We refuse the resolutions that decide Iraq's destiny from outside Iraq. This is a dangerous partitioning based on sectarianism and ethnicity," said Hashim Taie, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the parliament's main Sunni bloc.
Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's political supporters joined their Shiite rivals in denouncing the Senate's measure. "This project is the strategic option for the American administration in its failure to ignite a sectarian war inside Iraq," Nassar Rubaie said. "They started to search for a replacement, which is to divide Iraq."
Federalism has long proved a charged topic for Iraq. The Sadr loyalists have sought a strong national government. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, another large Shiite political faction, has also started to discourage the idea of further weakening an already frail government.
Leery of American intervention, Rubaie said the powers of the provinces and regional blocs should be defined once the U.S. withdraws from Iraq.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was quick to issue a statement Sunday distancing itself from the Democrat-led Senate.
Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Senate proposal had roused some of the worst fears of Arab states. "In Iraq and the Arab world, the word 'partition' is an anathema associated with the worst aspects of imperialist policy," he said.
Meanwhile Sunday, a preliminary military hearing in Baghdad for a second U.S. Army sniper accused of murdering an Iraqi was postponed until November.
Sgt. Evan Vela is being prosecuted on charges of premeditated murder in the May 11 shooting. He is also charged with planting a weapon on the victim, impeding an investigation and giving a false sworn statement. He confessed to the killing Thursday while testifying in the court-martial of his colleague, Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr.
Sandoval was acquitted of murder charges but convicted of a lesser offense. He was sentenced Saturday to 150 days in jail for poor conduct, but that sentence was commuted to 44 days and he was demoted to private.
Vela's lawyers asked for a delay, citing the amount of classified material relevant to the case for which they would need security clearance. They also asked for the court hearing to be closed to the public. A new date was set for Nov. 10.
The existence of a U.S. military strategy, called baiting -- in which a sniper drops a detonation wire or bomb material and then shoots any Iraqi who grabs it -- had been disclosed in July in testimony during the preliminary hearings for Sandoval and sniper unit leader Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, who has been charged in three killings.
Hensley's court-martial is to start in Baghdad on Oct. 22.
In east Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers were killed in combat, one Sunday and another Saturday, the military said.
Civilian deaths dropped to 884 in September, according to numbers obtained from the Iraqi Health Ministry. It was the lowest such toll since June 2006, when 887 civilians were killed.
The U.S. military has announced that the death toll during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has dropped dramatically so far compared with previous years.
Authorities credited the addition of 28,500 U.S. troops in Iraq this year for the decline in fatalities.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.