US "partition" resolution leaves Iraqis confused

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BAGHDAD, Oct 1 (Reuters) Angry Iraqis have denounced a US Senate vote for the creation of federal regions in Iraq as a plot to divide their country, but the outrage puzzles some who say federalism is already enshrined in their constitution.

Last week's non-binding Senate resolution, calling for a federal government and creation of federal regions, provoked storms of protest from politicians including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said it would be a disaster for Iraq.

Only Iraq's Kurds, who already enjoy autonomy in the north of the country, openly welcomed it.

Some officials and politicians said the anger in Baghdad was more a reaction to perceived outside interference in Iraqi affairs than to the contents of the non-binding resolution.

Opponents of federalism were also using the Senate vote to portray the concept as a foreign agenda, they said.

''Some people who do not believe in federalism and want a central system benefited from this by campaigning against it and made it look as if it's a campaign to divide Iraq,'' a Shi'ite politician who declined to speak publicly said.

''I have read (the resolution) very well and it doesn't mention dividing Iraq at all. I'm sure people who are rejecting it have not even read it, they probably just heard what the media reported.'' Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government's strong rejection of the Senate vote stemmed from its opposition to foreign intervention over Iraq's fate and not the wording involving federalism.

''As the government, we rejected this because it's an interference on a matter that should only be decided by a popular referendum.'' ''It seems those who are objecting ... are objecting to the principle of federalism,'' he said.

SUNNI FEARS Iraq's constitution describes Iraq as a republican, parliamentarian, democratic and federal state but it does not define specifically the degree or nature of the federalism that Kurds and some Shi'ites are seeking in parts of the country.

Sunni Arabs fiercely opposed federalism and worry that it could lead to the country's partition, leaving the world's third biggest oil reserves, which are mostly based in the south and the north, in the hands of Shi'ites and Kurds.

The Sunni Arab blocs in the parliament approved the constitution only after an agreement with Shi'ites and Kurds to amend some of its articles.

Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who unlike many Shi'ite leaders is opposed to federalism, says no federal regions should be created until US-led forces leave Iraq.

The resolution passed by the US Senate on Wednesday makes no mention of the number of regions and whether they should be based upon ethnic and sectarian faultlines.

Sunni politician Usama al-Nujeyfi, from parliament's secular National Iraqi bloc, said he supported articles referring to federalism in Iraq's constitution but rejected the idea of three regions based on ethnicity and sect.

''We reject any interference by foreigners to decide our national destiny for us,'' he told Reuters.

''The Iraqi constitution speaks of federalism but the areas where this federalism takes place are not yet set out. To set out three regions based on sectarian and ethnic lines will produce mini civil wars in areas that are mixed.'' REUTERS AM BST2145

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