Global Policy Forum

Iraq Parliament Re-Opens Amid Strife


Iraq's Parliament re-opened today after a month-long recess marked by mounting sectarian violence, beginning a session which will discuss breaking up the country into semi-independent regions.

Herald Sun
September 5, 2006

At the top of the agenda was the controversial question of whether to allow some of Iraq's provinces to merge into larger autonomous regions, a move which some Sunni lawmakers fear could lead to the country falling apart. Other groups, however, strongly support an idea which would create virtually independent zones in the oil-rich Shi'ite south and Kurdish north, and leave the Sunnis economically isolated in the barren western desert.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Coalition Government is struggling to unite Iraq's warring factions. "I urge all people of goodwill to come forward to support the national reconciliation project, otherwise we will face the worst period in modern Iraqi history," speaker Mahmud Mashhadani said as he opened the session. "We are the elected leaders of Iraq and I'm confident that the terrorists will not succeed in what they do," he said, referring to the rival insurgents and militias who kill more than 50 Iraqis in attacks every day. "In the next few sessions the parliament will discuss the law for the formation of provinces," predicted Abbas al-Bayati, spokesman for the largest Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, which holds 128 seats.

Before the session, Nawzad Saleh, a member of the Kurdish Alliance, said: "There is a draft law being discussed within the coalition to form provinces in accordance with the constitution. Informal discussions have begun." A leading Sunni lawmaker, Alaa Maki, confirmed that the issue was on the agenda, and appeared to signal that his group's opposition was softening. "We will give our opinion on federalism to parliament soon," he said. "But we do not object to the administrative application of federalism for better administration under the supervision of a strong central government."

As the assembly's 275 members gathered at the parliament building in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Bayati noted that under Iraq's new constitution, the issue of federalism must be tabled before September 16. It was not on today's immediate agenda however. Lawmakers were instead expected to rubber-stamp the renewal of Iraq's state of emergency, under which the coalition government has broad powers to fight unrest.

Most lawmakers nominally support a fragile national unity coalition headed by Maliki, who is struggling to impose his authority on a strife-torn country. But virtually all members also represent parties divided on strict ethnic and sectarian lines, and many political parties also enjoy the tacit or open support of militia forces engaged in Iraq's current bloody conflict.

Two issues are likely to generate angry debate once the sessions begin. One is the issue of federalism. The Kurdish north has enjoyed broad self-rule for 15 years, allowing it to escape the worst of the violence plaguing Arab areas, and is virtually united behind their leaders' demands for this to be legally protected. Many Shiite leaders – some allegedly encouraged by neighboring Iran – also want to split away their area in central and south Iraq, which holds holy Shi'ite shrines and pilgrimage sites as well as rich oil fields. Sunnis, who prospered under Saddam Hussein's ousted regime while their neighbors suffered his repression, are more attached to the idea of a strongly centralised Iraq which would guarantee their rights as a minority.

Another issue which is likely to generate heat is that of the national flag, which the President of the autonomous Kurdish region, Massud Barzani, has refused to fly, arguing that it represents the Saddam's regime. Sunni lawmakers issued a statement before parliament opened calling on Kurds to accept the flag as an interim measure while parliament debates the design of a new symbol which all Iraqis can expect.

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