"In Iraqi south, Shiites press for autonomy," by Sam Dagher for the Christian Science Monitor:
BAGHDAD - When Najaf unplugged its power station from the national grid last week, it was a sign of provincial dissent over the unequal distribution of electricity. But it also indicates a new assertiveness in the south, as Iraq's regional leaders seek to wrest control from a central government in Baghdad paralyzed by political infighting.
Multiple visions for unifying the county's southern provinces are emerging. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), one of the most powerful Shiite parties, is leading the charge to form an autonomous "South of Baghdad Region."
But 45 southern tribal notables in Najaf last week signed their own pact that envisions creating "the self-rule government of the unified Iraqi south."
Regardless of which southern group wins out, Baghdad faces a formidable challenge that could mean not just the loss of electricity, but revenue from the region's ports and oil fields, and further fracturing along sectarian lines.
"A federation of regions is one of the more practical solutions to Iraq's problems, but there is real fear that this will only be a prelude to partition," says Thamer al-Ameri, former adviser to the Iraqi parliament and now independent politician.
"Iraqis have yet to prove they are capable of power-sharing. We are just not ready to be in a federative union. So far it has been all about each group getting the most for itself," he says.
When Najaf pulled the plug on its electricity from Baghdad, provincial spokesman Ahmed Duaibel said it was because the provincial officials felt Najaf was not getting its fair share of electricity.
"We were being cheated out of our allotted quota for electricity and we felt this did not befit Najaf's stature as a pilgrimage center and seat of the marjayia [Shiite religious authority]," says Mr. Duaibel. "We did this for the sake of our citizens and we do not consider it mutiny against the central government."
But one prominent resident who is familiar with the workings of the local authority says the move is part of a larger effort to include Najaf in the "South of Baghdad Region." The other provinces included in the project are Babil, Basra, Dhi Qar, Diwaniyah (also known as Qadisiyah), Karbala, Maysan, Muthana, and Wasit.
The national assembly had passed a controversial law in October 2006 outlining the mechanism for establishing regions in Iraq. The law allows for regions to be created starting early April 2008 provided local referendums are held on the issue.
The law was opposed by Sunnis and Shiite rivals to SIIC, such as the Fadhila Party and Moqtada al-Sadr's movement, because they said it heralded the fragmentation of Iraq.
By focusing their efforts on controlling just a part of Iraq, the Shi'ites would give up the rest, including Baghdad. They would have a tremendous majority in the south, but would effectively cede other areas, potentially leaving Sunni areas intact (and with some level of sovereignty) as staging areas for attacks. Al-Sadr and others opposed to the idea may have noted that, with the U.S. preoccupied with holding Iraq together, the Shi'ites can rely on U.S. forces' continuing to do the dirty work of suppressing the Sunni insurgency. Then, with Iran's help, they can fill the vacuum.
Partition is increasingly being advocated by Washington lawmakers and think tanks as the only way to bring peace to Iraq. "There is a massive operation underway to pave the way for the [south of Baghdad] region, but it's being done quietly," says Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a senior parliamentarian and Hakim partisan who favors the SIIC plan.
Besides enjoying a close relationship with Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and educating the public about the merits of the "South of Baghdad" project, Sheikh Saghir says his party has already drawn up a detailed blueprint for creating the regional administration and that regular meetings take place now between top political, economic, and security officials from all nine provinces to further the goal.
He says the issue is of "tremendous regional and strategic significance that leaves no room for misadventures."