Iraq chief assails Sunni autonomy push

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BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out Saturday at politicians seeking regional status for the mostly Sunni Salahuddin province, charging that they were seeking a "safe house for Baathists," the banned party of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Maliki spoke two days after the provincial council in Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace, voted, 20-0, with eight members not present, to declare Salahuddin a region of Iraq. The province, north of Baghdad, would be only the second designated region in Iraq, after Kurdistan, but other Sunni provinces may follow suit.

Officials said the vote was intended to boost the province's share of federal revenues and to protest the domination of Mr. Maliki's Shiite-led central government. Critics say it will weaken the fabric of the multi-ethnic Iraqi state, for under the Iraqi constitution, a declared region takes control over its own internal security.

Salahuddin officials said the timing of the vote was spurred by the recent firing of more than 100 professors at Tikrit University for alleged Baath Party connections, and by a nationwide roundup of Baathists in the course of this week.

Mr. Maliki told the semi-official Iraqiya TV that Salahuddin doesn't have the right to declare autonomy but has to follow the constitutional procedure of submitting a request to the Council of Ministers, which he heads, and the Iraqi national parliament, as well as other steps.

In actual fact, article 119 of the Iraqi constitution requires only that a referendum be held in a province following a request for regional status by one-third of the members of the provincial council, or one-tenth of the population.

On Saturday, Mr. Maliki, who reportedly had a shouting match with Saleh Mutlak, his Sunni deputy, earlier last week over the issue of declaring regions, cast the provincial council's move as Baathist-instigated.

The acting head of the Salahuddin council, Sabhan Mulla Chyad, rejected Mr. Maliki's assertions and said the national parliament plays no role in a province's move to regional status.


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