Iraq leaders take breathing space on regions row

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s leaders stepped back from the brink of a political crisis on Sunday in the hope of preventing a dispute over local control of oilfields erupting into all-out sectarian civil war.

The deal, if it holds through two more days of parliamentary debate, effectively kills off plans by some majority Shiite leaders to hive off a big, autonomous federal region in their oil-rich southern heartland for the best part of two years.

In return, moderate leaders from the once dominant Sunni Muslim minority dropped a threat to boycott the new parliament and agreed to discuss how to implement constitutional provisions for Iraq to be a federal state. Ethnic Kurds maintain the broad autonomy they fought to secure from Saddam Hussein in the north.

“We don’t necessarily agree with all of it but it is a way forward,” Saleem Jibouri, a negotiator from the Sunnis’ Accordance Front, said of a deal that will freeze for 18 months any new law allowing provinces to form autonomous regions.

With a fifth of the seats, his bloc now felt a boycott would only have prolonged the crisis: “We wanted a consensus … It could have a positive effect on the street, which is bleeding.” Ali Adeeb of the Shiite Dawa Party said: “If we’d insisted on our position and they’d held their ground, we’d have got nowhere. I hope this can calm tensions in parliament.” No new region was likely within two years, he added.

With a constitutional deadline looming in four weeks, longer stalemate could have undermined efforts by Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, also from Dawa, to consolidate his grip on power and to hold together his US-sponsored national unity government.

Sectarian passions are running high at the start of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Sunni fighters claimed a bombing in the Baghdad stronghold of a Shiite faction on Saturday that killed at least 34 people lining up for fuel for their stoves.

Shiites begin the fasting month on Monday, two days after Sunnis. US commanders have warned of a surge in violence.

“We are all invited to take advantage of the days of Allah’s great month to establish bonds of brotherhood,” Maliki said.

Killings

Two US Marines were killed on Sunday in fighting in the Sunni insurgent heartland of Anbar province west of Baghdad and a dozen people died in several bomb attacks, mostly in Baghdad.

More than 100 people a day are being killed in violence concentrated in the divided city of seven million, the United Nations estimates. Bloodshed is not confined to the capital, however. In one northern town, morgue officials showed reporters severed heads dumped in the oil town of Baiji on Saturday.

Sunni insurgents have been fighting since the US invasion of 2003, but “death squad” killings on all sides are now the main concern for US and Iraqi leaders fearful of civil war.

For the second time in two days, Iraqi officials said they had seized a man they called a top Sunni rebel. US and Iraqi commanders that intelligence has improved since a US air raid killed Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Mussab Zarqawi, in June.

The New York Times published details of a US intelligence report that concluded the Iraq war had fostered hostility to the United States in the Muslim world, despite Washington’s stated aim of fostering a prosperous democracy in Iraq.

Officials in the US-led coalition in Iraq have confessed to fears political leaders may let their own mutual suspicions drag the nation of 26 million into all-out sectarian conflict that could then involve Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states.

One senior official said, however, he had seen signs in the parliamentary process over the past week that gave him hope.

He noted in particular that demands for a big, powerful Shiite region comprising all nine of the 18 of Iraq’s provinces south of Baghdad do not have solid support beyond the biggest Shiite political party, SCIRI, led by Abdul Aziz Hakim.

Politicians involved in negotiations said smaller Shiite groups, including the nationalist movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr, seemed ready to support Sunni proposals that provinces not be allowed to merge into bigger regions.

Under the deal, parliament will on Monday form a committee, demanded by Sunnis, to consider constitutional amendments over the next year. On Tuesday, it should hear a first reading of a Shiite-sponsored bill on how to form regions. But any eventual law would not go into effect for 18 months after being passed.

Though the main Shiite bloc has a near-majority, the timing holds out the possibility of further compromises next year.

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