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Oil Wealth Divides Iraqis

Constitution is hung up on whether Shiites and Kurds should control their regions' riches.

August 01, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It is crunch time for the drafters of Iraq's constitution, and one question above all has stymied them: whether Kurds and Shiites should control their own regions and the oil money they generate.

On Sunday, transitional National Assembly officials argued about whether to seek a delay of the Aug. 15 deadline for completing the document to give them more time to hash out such sticky issues.

The key, when it comes to Iraqi politics, is the map. And what it shows is that in the Shiite Muslim south and areas close to the Kurdish north lie vast oil deposits worth billions of dollars per year. In the center, where most Sunni Arabs live, lie sand and scrub.

Although other issues remain under debate, including the rights of women and the role of Islam, there is only one that could provoke violent upheaval: whether political power and oil revenue will be controlled largely by a centralized national government or by regional authorities.

"Women's rights are very important, of course, but however they come out, it will not lead to civil war. Other things are far more likely to do that ... and federalism is by far the hardest issue," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan, which tracks Iraq.

Struggles for power between central and regional governments have been at the core of some modern nations' bloodiest wars. Countries such as the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union fought bitterly over the issue. The United States broke out in civil war over states' rights in 1861. Local autonomy often comes at a terrible price.

The Kurds have a head start in carving up the map, having enjoyed semi-autonomy from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime under the protection of a U.S.-enforced "no fly" zone. Kurdish leaders want the constitution to ratify and strengthen that autonomy by creating a federal system with strong regional governments entitled to a proportion of regionally derived oil income.

Most Shiite leaders, whose people suffered brutal repression under Hussein, say it is only fair for them to get the same autonomy as the Kurds so they can create a comparable region in the south.

Sunnis strongly oppose such an arrangement. They want more power to remain in the capital and money to be distributed by the central government. That is an arrangement over which they, as a minority, hope to exercise more control.

Sunnis fear that if southern Iraq establishes a Kurdish-style autonomy, eventually the country would violently break apart, and they would be left with little in the way of natural resources.

U.S. officials are also uneasy about an Iraq without a strong center. They worry that because of Sunni opposition to such an arrangement, it would worsen rather than resolve civil strife, gradually drawing in neighboring countries and fomenting trouble in the region. Furthermore, the U.S. mantra has long been a democratic, unified Iraq -- not three de facto countries.

"For the constitution to play the role that it should play to facilitate Iraq's success, it has to be a national compact among all Iraqi communities," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the new U.S. envoy. "It's very important that the constitution is produced through the participation of all Iraqis and that all Iraqis see themselves in this picture that is emerging.... This is important for ending and defeating the insurgency."

Yet serious fractures are evident.

Two versions of the constitution were published in Arabic newspapers last week that highlighted two groups' distinct interests.

One draft, acceptable to many of the country's Shiite leaders and to some Kurds, featured a detailed section that would allow provinces to join together to form semi-autonomous regions. Each would be run by an assembly, a council and a president. The budget would be financed by a combination of grants from the central government and an unspecified share of the region's resources, enshrining in the constitution the right of local governments to their natural resources.

Shiite leaders were especially attracted to an explicit acknowledgment in this version that Islam would be the primary source of Iraq's laws.

Another version, published in a Kurdish newspaper, was the Kurds' dream constitution, all but making their region an independent country. It would give the regional governments sweeping powers. Under this version, just 35% of natural-resource income would be sent to Baghdad.

That version also would require regional governments to approve laws passed by the National Assembly for them to take effect. Kurds say they need such powers to maintain their region's secular, Western character -- especially its progressive treatment of women.

"The Kurds are not fundamentalist, they are anti-Islamic form of government," said Nasreen Berwari, a Kurd who is minister for municipalities and public works. "The Kurds need to be very careful, very persistent. They need ... to be free to take or not to take whatever law is applied" in the rest of the country.

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