Break-up of Iraq?
As Iraq's Sunni Arabs bid for autonomy within a federal Iraqi state, is this the prelude to the country's balkanisation, asks Salah Nasrawi
Since the modern Iraqi state came into being in the 1920s, the country's Sunni Arabs have prided themselves on being a bulwark of Arab nationalism and the guardians of Iraq's unity in the face of Kurdish secessionism and Shia disenchantment with Sunni domination.
Most Sunnis boycotted the referendum on the new constitution drafted after the 2003 US-led invasion on the grounds that the document was a recipe for the end of Iraq as a unitary state as it allowed ethnic groups, or provinces, to set themselves up as autonomous regions under a federal system, something argued for by the Kurds and backed by the Shias.
The country's Sunnis abandoned their boycott and participated heavily in last year's elections, later joining a "partnership government" in the hope of ending their marginalisation under the Shia and Kurdish-controlled governments that came to power in the country after the ousting of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
But over recent months many Sunnis have been breaking a national taboo by declaring that the country's Sunnis should secede from an ethnically-divided and violence-ridden Iraq and seek their own autonomy.
On 2 November, a Sunni-dominated province of Iraq created uproar when its local council voted to establish itself as an "independent region within a unified Iraq."
The provincial council of Salaheddin, which hosts Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, voted by 20 votes out of 28 to set up the new federal region, sparking speculation that other Sunni provinces may now follow suit.
In trying to explain the shift, the council's leaders said that the establishment of an autonomous region was a reaction to the Iraqi government's negligence, exclusion and marginalisation of Sunnis.
They said that the request to set up an autonomous region had been intended to boost the province's share of federal revenues and to protest against the domination of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Shia-led government.
Coming in the aftermath of a nationwide crackdown on former Saddam loyalists, the timing of the vote seemed to have been spurred by the firing of more than 100 lecturers at Tikrit University for alleged Baath Party connections and a roundup of suspected Baathists in the province.
Hundreds of former Baathists have been arrested in recent weeks following government reports that they were conspiring to overthrow Al-Maliki's government.
The move to set up an autonomous Sunni province prompted criticism from Iraqi Shia leaders, who accused the Salaheddin provincial officials of sectarianism and separatism.
Al-Maliki rejected the decision, accusing Sunni politicians of seeking a safe haven for members of the banned Baath Party. Radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr also voiced concern and urged council members to "work to preserve Iraq's unity." Other members of his political bloc accused neighbouring countries of seeking Iraq's partition.
In protesting against the Sunni move, the Shias may be contradicting themselves, however, since it was they who argued for a federal Iraq after Saddam's ouster in an attempt to decentralise the government's policy and decision making.
Four predominantly Shia provinces -- Basra, Maysan, Thi Qar and Muthanna -- have discussed plans to make themselves autonomous regions, and some Shias have advocated the construction of a larger federal region that would include all nine southern and central provinces, which are predominately Shia.
Although the mainly Sunni Iraqiya parliamentary bloc did not support the Salaheddin province's decision, the move received wide support from fellow Sunni leaders. Officials and tribal leaders in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar have said that they are also considering a request for their province to be given autonomy.
Iraq's Sunnis have been increasingly showing interest in autonomy from the rest of Iraq, with some even calling for Sunni provinces to secede from the Iraqi state.
In June this year, Osama Al-Nujaifi, a leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya List and speaker of the Iraqi parliament, announced that Iraq's Sunni minority felt "frustrated" and might declare "a region" of its own in the country.
Al-Nujaifi said that Sunnis had strong feelings that they were being treated as second-class citizens in Iraq and not partners in the government. He warned that if things got worse the country's Sunnis might even think of separation.
On Monday, Al-Nujaifi chaired a meeting of provincial officials to discuss decentralisation policies and called for the abolition of five central government ministries, which he accused of mismanagement. The meeting was boycotted by representatives of the Shia and Kurdish provinces.
For the Salaheddin council decision to take effect, it must be approved by a referendum of residents of the province, and the council has asked the country's independent elections commission to set a date for the referendum.
Under Article 119 of the Iraqi constitution, "one or more governorates shall have the right to organise into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum."
If the Salaheddin province succeeds in its bid, it would be the second designated autonomous region in Iraq after Kurdistan, the northern Kurdish region which now almost enjoys the status of being a separate state.
The move in Salaheddin comes as political tensions and violence are escalating in Iraq as the United States prepares to withdraw its remaining forces from the country by the end of December.
In a bid to defuse the dispute, Al-Maliki met with the Salaheddin governor and lawmakers from the province on Friday to discuss the situation.
A statement from his office said that Al-Maliki had explained the "internal and external challenges and dangers facing Iraq" and that he had promised to travel to Salaheddin to discuss the province's grievances further.
However, governor of Salaheddin province Ahmed Abdullah Al-Jubouri said that the decision to declare the province a region was final and it should be determined by a referendum.
Judging by the vehemence of the arguments on both sides, the issue looks to be much more than a Sunni outcry against mismanagement or against a new campaign of arrests of former Baathists.
As American troop withdrawal nears, Sunnis fear that the Shia-led Iraqi government will exploit the political and security vacuum to set further limits on their status, further unbalancing the partnership between the two communities that will shape the new Iraq.
Sunni Arabs are afraid of a complete Shia takeover of the state and their being pushed aside. In resorting to federalism, they may have come to realise that establishing autonomous regions is fundamental to their well-being and protection.
The country's Shias need to alleviate concerns among the Sunnis in order to advance the development of a cohesive Iraqi national identity and to reduce feelings of deprivation and exclusion among Sunnis.
However, in order to understand what is happening to relations between the diverse ethnicities in Iraq and the structure of the state, it is also necessary to look at regional forces.
Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all have stakes in Iraq, and they fear that separatism in the country may spill over into their territories even as they are seeking to expand their spheres of influence within Iraq.
The ongoing Arab Spring is also expected to create further instability in the region by increasing social and political cleavages in other countries.
In the light of these developments, Iraqis are confronted with fateful decisions relating to their vision of the country: either they entertain catastrophic sectarian and ethnic agendas, or they engage in genuine nation-building.
There are no easy solutions to the chaos created by the US-led invasion, but Iraq is not yet doomed to balkanisation.