BAGHDAD, Iraq—A plan to divide Iraq into three autonomous regions, trumpeted by some U.S. politicians as one way to end the sectarian violence, is losing support among a key constituency—residents of Iraq's largely Shiite Muslim southern provinces.
Interviews with Shiites in southern Iraq say they no longer believe a region made up largely of members of their sect will solve the problems that plague their communities. If such perceptions hold, the idea of an Iraq loosely organized along sectarian and ethnic lines would have lost the support of the group expected to benefit most from its imposition.
The idea has always been opposed by Sunni Muslims, who live largely in areas removed from the oil fields that provide most of Iraq's revenues. Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, fear they'd no longer have access to the oil revenue under a loosely organized federal state.
Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south in general have supported the idea, and the Kurds continue to favor it. With both oil and a long tradition of handling their own affairs, Kurds see the step as just short of their long-sought goal of a separate Kurdish nation.
But recent developments in Iraq's south, including fighting among rival Shiite militias, have soured many southern Shiites on the prospects an autonomous region would offer them. Their cooling to the idea also reflects the rising level of frustration with the government and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who previously had wide support in the south.
Most of the nearly three dozen Shiites interviewed recently by McClatchy Newspapers said they feel abandoned by their largely Shiite central government, which they voted for in droves in December. They said the government has allowed local parties and their militias—which have proved to be stronger than the government's security forces—to control their cities. A regional government will only further empower those militias, they said.
Ahmed al-Awadi, 33, a government worker in Najaf, said the central government and existing provincial leaders must prove themselves capable before considering new layers of bureaucracy.
"I want the politicians to prove to us that they are really capable of running this country and fighting corruption and the militias before they think about federalism," al-Awadi said.
In a federalist system, local governments represent states or provinces, but are under the authority of a central government. The United States, Canada, Australia, India and Brazil and Switzerland all are examples of nations that have federalist systems, although they differ in how much power they give the local governments. In the U.S., for example, the state government's power is relatively strong.
The Iraqi constitution is vague about the relationship between its provincial and central governments. According to the document, the parliament was supposed to revise the constitution during its first six months in office and detail how a federalist system would work. Instead, the parliament agreed earlier this month not to consider the issue for 18 months.
Southern Shiites say their view of federalism has been colored by the current system, where the largest cities in the south are effectively controlled by one of three militia-backed political parties: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its armed faction, the Badr Organization; firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army; and the Fadhila Party.
The parties battle with one another for control in what some British officials have called more akin to gang turf wars than political battles. Recently, members of the Mahdi Army took over three police stations in the city of Amara after a fellow Mahdi Army member was detained on charges that he killed the city's head of police intelligence, who was a member of the Badr Organization. More than 20 people were killed and nearly 100 injured in the violence, which subsided after British troops, who'd handed control of the city to local forces in August, moved back in.
Members of the Mahdi Army also have clashed with Iraqi forces in the southern city of Diwaniyah, and there have been clashes between government forces and rogue elements in Babil. Earlier in the year, Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, was beset by fighting between Fadhila and the other Shiite groups.
Residents in Diwaniyah and the city of Hillah said last week that two rival militias are fighting for control of their neighborhoods.
"If federalism will provide me security and a job, then I will support it. But if it will serve the corrupted leaders in the Iraqi government and give them more money than they have already stolen, then I will reject the federalism law," said Ali Fakhri, 25, a construction worker in the holy city of Najaf.
Others feared that a local government would strengthen ties with Iran, allowing non-Iraqis undue influence in local decisions.
"The Iranians are in control," said Akram Mohammed, 30, a businessman from Najaf. "That is why they are trying to make federalism happen, so there will be more corruption and we can be a part of Iran as soon as possible."
James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at London-based Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank, said the idea of federalism has been marred in the eyes of Shiites. Federalism isn't supposed to allow rogue parties and militias to take control of communities away from the central government, but rather create a relationship between the two. In southern Iraq, that doesn't exist.
"It's not a federal system in any way in the Western sense" of the term, Denselow said. "It is not a state. There is no way to define it."
Iraq is currently carved into 18 provinces, and since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, their ethnic and religious differences have become more pronounced. Earlier this month, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution after a controversial vote, agreeing to revisit how to create a federalist state in 18 months. Sunni parliamentarians boycotted the vote, saying it would divide the country, and the measure passed 140-to-0 by the largely Shiite and Kurdish members still present.
The Kurds, with their already largely autonomous Kurdistan region in the north, strongly backed allowing federalism during last year's drafting of the constitution.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has aggressively pushed for federalism for the southern regions, calling for nine provinces to merge. Many presume he'd be the head of a largely Shiite southern province.
Shortly after the parliament vote, Hakim said in a news conference that dividing Iraq into three regions would stop the violence, citing the relatively peaceful Kurdish regions.
"There is a clear point of view gleaned from our Kurdish brothers, and that is, the Iraq problem can only be solved with regions," Hakim said.
Sadrists and the Fadhila Party oppose federalism, in part because it could give control of the south, including its oil reserves, to their political rival, Hakim. Sadr's main platform has been nationalism.
But there's also opposition among Hakim's party. Earlier this month, one of Hakim's fellow council members, who also leads a prominent Shiite mosque in Baghdad, said he opposed federalism.
"Why can't the solution be one Iraq with no terrorists and no terror?" Jalal al-Dean al-Saghir, head of the Baratha mosque, wrote in a blog dedicated to answering worshippers' questions. "Federalism is not the solution. The solution is a determination to defeat the enemy."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Hussein al Mousawi in Najaf and Hussam Ali in Karbala contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.