BAGHDAD, Iraq—As Iraq begins writing its new constitution, leaders in the country's southern regions are pushing aggressively to unite their three provinces into an oil-rich, semi-autonomous state, a plan that some worry could solidify Iraq's sectarian tensions, create fights over oil revenues and eventually split the nation.
In the southern Shiite Muslim city of Basra, where the provincial government launched the campaign, signs on the streets encourage residents to support the plan. Local leaders have held several conferences to map out their proposed state and regional government.
Muhammed Musbih al Waely, the governor of Basra province, said Shiites suffered under the last centralized government, Saddam Hussein's, and that they wanted to control the development of their region.
"The next few months are going to witness a big change in the region," al Waely said.
Al Waely's proposal would unite the contiguous southeast Shiite-dominated provinces of Maysan, Basra and Dhiqar into a single state. Basra, the country's second-largest city and the principal port city, would be the new regional government's capital.
Aziz Kadhim Alwan, the governor of Dhiqar—whose provincial capital is Nasiriyah—said he was on board.
The region is rich with resources and trade opportunities. Dhiqar could expand its trading business through Basra's port; Maysan could expand the other two provinces' trade with Iran. Basra would be a more powerful city, with more oil, agriculture, trade and tourism under its control.
The discussion has created tension in Basra between Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority there. Some Sunnis already have left because they think the proposed new region excludes them. That response has some fretting that a state defined partly on religion could fuel the sectarianism that's engulfed the country since the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections.
Ihsan Numan, a Sunni and a Basra University student, said some Shiite students had warned him that a new regional state wouldn't be good for him.
"I was told openly by ... Shiite students, `You better look for a place to go before this region becomes a state. You were protected by Saddam, but not anymore,'" Numan said. "My family and I already feel the threat. Right after I finish my exams I will take my family and try to go abroad."
The minority Sunnis, who already feel marginalized in the country's political process, said they were concerned that discussions about states would split the country. At a Sunni Arab conference earlier this week among the sect's leadership, the group released demands for participation in the national government. Among them was a promise that the new constitution would unify Iraq.
The southeast regional plan already has support in the National Assembly, including from the chairman of the constitutional committee, Homam Hamoodi. Hamoodi said he wanted an Iraq governed by administrative federalism that included at least two states.
"Most everybody agrees on federalism," Hamoodi said.
Another assemblyman, Khudaier al Khuzaie, a prominent member in the Shiite-dominated slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, and a member of the constitutional committee, said the committee was discussing the topic, and that it had many supporters.
"It just needs constitutional development," al Khuzaie said.
The idea for grouping Iraq's 18 provinces into states first appeared in the U.S.-brokered interim constitution, which allowed up to three provinces, excluding Baghdad and Kirkuk, to become "regions amongst themselves." So far, only the Kurds in the north have created such a region.
As the Kurds gained more power in the newly elected centralized government, the Shiites began discussing a region of their own to counter what they thought was too much political power for the Kurds, analysts said.
"They way they played it out, Kurdistan was a behemoth with a disproportionately high amount of power in Baghdad," said Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in Shiite Islam.
The interim constitution governs the country until the National Assembly drafts a permanent constitution, which it's supposed to do by Aug. 15, and it's ratified in a national vote.
Al Waely said he and the governors of the two other provinces planned to bring their proposal to the constitutional committee within weeks, hoping that the permanent constitution would spell out the relationship between their proposed state and the central government.
While U.S. officials don't oppose a Shiite region, one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said southern leaders who thought their proposed state would give them control over the oil there probably were wrong.
"The people in southern Iraq assume that if they have this kind of government, they'll have more resources, that they'll have oil revenue," the diplomat said. "That is not self-evident, however, because the oil revenues are treated as national revenues in the transitional" government.
"I think there will be quite a push among Iraqis in the constitutional debates to put oil revenues outside the control of any regional government," he added.
Al Waely said he expected part of that revenue to stay in the south.
Earlier this year, the then-governor of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, Sheik Fasal al Goud, proposed creating a Sunni regional government in the west, but many religious leaders rejected the notion. Part of the problem for the Sunnis is that Sunni Arab areas have few natural resources, prompting many Sunnis to call for more centralization.
Many observers are worried that grouping provinces into states may push the country toward Balkanization.
In a report last month called "Power-Sharing in Iraq," David L. Phillips of the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations, a foreign policy research organization, argued that a three-state system—Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite—would fuel sectarianism.
The University of Michigan's Cole said a system of regional governments might not last long term, particularly if states with enough natural resources to support themselves fought for independence.
"It solves a lot of problems, but I am not sure it leads to long-term stability," Cole said.
Al Waely said there was no intention of splitting off. "Absolutely not," he said.
One U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said the Americans would welcome any plan under one condition: "We insist Iraq must stay unified."
(Knight Ridder special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050525 USIRAQ STATES