Iraqis agree to debate bill creating autonomous statesBAGHDAD, Iraq After yielding to several demands from Sunni Arab parties, Iraqi political leaders agreed on Sunday to start debate on a bill that could eventually allow the country to be broken into autonomous states.
The legislative fight is at the heart of one of the most critical and divisive issues in Iraq: whether Shiites in the south will be able to form semi-independent regions, like Kurdistan in the north, that would control their own security as well as billions of barrels of oil.
Autonomous states are allowed by the new Iraqi Constitution, but the charter requires Parliament first to pass a bill defining how that would occur. A powerful faction of Shiites and Kurds tried to pass such a proposal three weeks ago. But their move angered Sunni Arabs and some Shiite and secular lawmakers, who united to block the bill.
Sunni parties and other critics won two major concessions during a meeting of political leaders on Sunday in return for allowing the proposal to be debated in Parliament.
The Shiite faction agreed that Parliament would immediately form a committee to consider amendments to the Constitution that include Sunni proposals to restrict autonomous states. It also agreed that any move to break off would be delayed until 2008 at the earliest, easing fears that Shiites would quickly split from the rest of Iraq into one large confederation stretching from south of Baghdad to Basra.
Moreover, Sunni negotiators emphasized that they did not agree to support or vote for the legislation but only to allow it to be debated in Parliament, said Dhafir al-Ani, a leading Sunni lawmaker. "The issue is just to consider it and go with the process," Mr. Ani said.
The deal does allow supporters to put the issue in front of Parliament with a promise from rivals to debate the issue in good faith. When the bill was brought up earlier, it spurred an acrimonious fight. Mahmoud Mashhadani, the speaker of Parliament and a Sunni Arab, accused supporters of trying to sneak the bill past him, while other Sunni legislators said they had been double-crossed.
The political progress came as violence continued throughout Iraq. Two marines were killed as a result of "enemy action" in Anbar Province on Sunday, the United States military said.
At least 20 Iraqis were slain in bombings and other attacks, The Associated Press reported. The A.P. also reported that Saddam Hussein's legal team said it would continue to boycott the deposed leader's genocide trial in Baghdad. The lawyers are angry that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki fired a judge who prosecutors had charged was biased toward Mr. Hussein.
In one of Sunday's worst attacks, a bomb exploded near a Christian church in Baghdad, killing at least one person and wounding more than a dozen. Almaz Yunadim, a 34-year-old homemaker who witnessed the attack, said that in her opinion, the attack was probably spurred by comments made by Pope Benedict XVI that many Muslims found offensive.
"People are being killed because of what the pope has said," she said. "The person who doesn't know how to speak should step down."
The political deal reached on Sunday says the legislation defining how autonomous states are formed will not take effect until 18 months after it is approved, said Khalid al-Atiya, a deputy speaker of Parliament who is a negotiator for one of the Shiite factions. The constitutional committee is expected to complete its work within a year, Mr. Atiya said through an aide.
The most ardent backer of the proposal is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite party. Mr. Hakim wants to carve out a nine-province state that would include most of the people and oil in southern Iraq.
Sunni Arabs are suspicious of the plan, believing that it is sure to rob them of their share of Iraq's oil wealth. And some Shiite leaders worry that Mr. Hakim's plan for one giant Shiite state would create a dynasty for Mr. Hakim and leave their parties marginalized. They would prefer smaller autonomous states in areas where their influence is more concentrated.
The fight over autonomous regions threatened to doom the entire Constitution until a deal was worked out just before Iraqis voted on the charter last October. In that deal, Sunni leaders dropped their opposition to the idea in return for a provision requiring Parliament to renegotiate the parts that trouble the Sunnis. Now, with the formation of the committee, that process will begin.
Mr. Ani, the Sunni lawmaker, said 27 committee members will be named on Tuesday. Another Sunni politician, Khalaf al-Alyan, said Sunni parties would get 5 seats, the Kurds 5 seats, the secular coalition of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi 2 seats and the dominant Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance 12. Other parties would get the remaining 3 seats.
Divisions remain within the Shiite coalition. Opposition from legislators loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr as well as members of the Fadhila Party helped derail the legislation three weeks ago.
Fadhila has agreed to debate the bill, but its members will vote for the measure only if it discourages the creation of one huge federation across southern Iraq, said Hassan al-Shimiri, a party official. Its stance is at odds with that of Mr. Hakim's party, but such a provision "would ease the fears of people who are afraid of fragmenting the country," Mr. Shimiri said.
He also said autonomous states should be allowed only after Iraq's unstable security and economic conditions improve, which he said could take a lot longer that 18 months.
Khalid W. Hassan and Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting.