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Senate backs separating Iraq into 3 regions

Biden's nonbinding bill, which draws bipartisan support, calls for a decentralized nation that empowers areas.

September 27, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Implicitly criticizing the Bush administration's reliance on the Iraqi central government to unify the country, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed the decentralization of Iraq into semi-autonomous regions.

The nonbinding measure sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) -- which supports a "federal system" that would divide Iraq into sectarian-dominated regions -- won unusually broad bipartisan support, passing 75 to 23.

It attracted 26 Republicans, 47 Democrats and both independents.

"Slowly but surely we're building a consensus in the Congress around a way forward in Iraq," said Biden, who worked with conservatives, such as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and liberals, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), to get the measure through. "That is a very hopeful sign."

After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cast it as an indictment of Bush's war strategy, though the measure will not compel the administration to do anything differently.

Reid has failed all year to win substantial GOP support for measures challenging current White House policy in Iraq.

Biden's proposal, which he outlined a year and a half ago, was once dismissed by the Bush administration and many on Capitol Hill as an unworkable and irresponsible prescription for breaking apart Iraq. But as the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has stumbled in its efforts to unify the country's warring religious and ethnic communities, the idea of a decentralized country divided among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites has taken on new currency.

Kurds already have a largely autonomous entity in northern Iraq with a separate president and parliament. And the Bush administration's new emphasis on "bottom-up" efforts to create a civil society, such as those it has promoted among Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, have been seen as a de facto endorsement of a more decentralized approach in Iraq.

The White House reacted tersely, noting that the measure conditions the policy change on the agreement of Iraqis. "The amendment recognizes that Iraqis will be the ones that make decisions about their political future," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. "It also reiterates the importance of bottom-up reconciliation."

In the Senate, Biden's proposal has attracted far more Republican support than any previous Democratic plan, but it will have no practical effect unless it pressures the president or Iraqis to change course.

Senate Democrats last week failed three times to overcome GOP filibusters of measures designed to more forcefully change the course of U.S. policy in Iraq, including two that would have mandated a withdrawal.

Senior Democrats are still working on a compromise calling for a change of mission in Iraq that could attract enough Republican support to overcome the 60-vote supermajority insisted on by GOP leaders. It remains unclear if they will be successful before the Senate wraps up its debate of a key defense policy bill.

Biden's amendment to the 2008 defense authorization bill concludes that "the United States should actively support a political settlement in Iraq based on the final provisions of the Constitution that create a federal system of government and allow for the creation of federal regions, consistent with the wishes of the Iraqi people and their leaders."

Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has argued that his plan does not endorse partition but simply recognizes that Iraq's communities need to separate to stem the cycle of ethnic and sectarian violence.

He and other supporters point to the Balkans, where the U.S. helped craft a federated system in Bosnia-Herzegovina that separated Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims after years of bloody civil war.

"It is possible that the present structure in Baghdad is incapable of national reconciliation because its elected constituents were elected on a sectarian basis," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), one of the measure's cosponsors. "A wiser course would be to concentrate on the three principal regions."

Several leading Senate Republicans -- who have worked to block nearly all legislation this year challenging U.S. policy in Iraq -- criticized the Biden plan for sending a dangerous message to Iraq.

"It would be a mistake for us to be seen as dictating to the Iraqi people," said Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. "It's clearly up to the Iraqi people to make this decision."

All but one of the 23 no votes Wednesday were Republican. Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin was the only Democrat to vote against the measure.

Wednesday, the Senate also passed a second nonbinding amendment that urges the Bush administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, a move the administration is considering.

The measure -- sponsored by Kyl and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- passed 76 to 22 over the objections of some Democrats who said it risked opening the door to war with Iran.

Twenty-one Democrats and one independent voted against it.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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