Iraq's oil-rich southern provinces are considering plans to set up an autonomous region - a move that reflects their growing frustration with the central government in Baghdad and could pose a threat to the unity of the country.
Members of the municipal council of Basra, Iraq's second largest city, have been holding talks with officials from councils in two neighbouring provinces on establishing a federal region in the south, following the example of the Kurdish north.
The three provinces - Basra, Missan and Dhiqar - account for more than 80 per cent of the proved oil reserves of the country's 18 provinces and provide a large share of the national income.
The talks are a political challenge to the embattled interim Iraqi government which is fighting a fierce insurgency in Sunni Arab areas, continued unrest in an impoverished Shia suburb of Baghdad and militant gangs bent on disrupting the country's reconstruction.
Diplomats familiar with the talks, recently reported by Iraqi media, say the three provinces have felt marginalised in new government institutions, including the consultative assembly that advises the government. They believe they are not receiving a fair share of economic resources.
The cabinet led by Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, includes only one representative from the three provinces.
It's likely that Iran is also encouraging the secessionist movement, as the article notes further down. There also is surely impetus for this due to the special dispensation given the Kurdish region, whose extra autonomy was hard-coded into the transitional constitution and will likely remain. The Shi'a of the south have a right to ask, if the Kurds can be essentially independent, why can't we?
There will definitely be feedback between the southern secession and the northern secession, as each feels emboldened by teh other's claims. Turkey is desperate to avoid a free Kurdistan, for fear of their own Kurdish minority attempting to breakaway and join (and like Bill Allison, I confess to great sympathy for the Kurds' desire for a state of their own. They certainly have composed themselves with Polish-levels of honor under brutal sufferring and oppression, in marked contrast to the Palestinians).
Turkey therefore has an interest in seeing the southern part of Iraq also remain part of a unified Iraq; were the south to break free, the reduced viability of the remaining Iraq would make the Kurdish breakaway all that more likely.
Iran has an interest in seeing the south secede, because they want to play the same proxy-state game that they have seen the colonial powers of Britain and America play in the previous century. The Iranian theocratic regime likely sees a free Shi'a state as a nagtural ally, but I wonder if they are overestimating the Shi'a populace's willingness to submit to Sadr's brand of theocratic rule (witness the large demonstrations in Najaf and Sistani's influence).
Ultimately, the Sunni center is the one that concerns American national security the most, because that's the most fertile ground for Al Qaeda. It's hard not to see some merit i the idea of partition, therefore - we'd have Kurdistan in the north, likely to be an ally. We'd have a stable Shi'a state in the south, which would pose some risk of collusion with Iran but also might be a better influence on Iran than we realize. And the Sunni center could be contained more effectively by concentrating there our limited troop resources, allowing for more probability of success in building a stable, democratic state.
But thats the rosy view, one which neocons might embrace, but which more honest appraisers have to concede may be far messier in reality. Just a reminder from history - when India was partitioned, the median of the death toll estimates is 500,000 people. Careful planning and a wiser hand at the helm of US foreign policy is required if Iraq partition becomes inevitable.
Ultimately, if the Shi'a state secedes and becomes democratic, it may well align itself with Iran. A true commitment to freedom means that we have to support democratization regardless of that risk, rather than try to install a puppet regime (as the Bush administration does, cloaking its essentially realpolitik approach with a veneer of freedom rhetoric).
UPDATE: tragedy beyond belief:
BAGHDAD, Sept. 30 -- Separate bomb blasts across Iraq Thursday killed more than 40 people, most of them children, in a dramatic escalation of the country's violent insurgency that also injured hundreds of Iraqis and numerous American troops.
The most lethal attack appeared to be directed at a government-sponsored ceremony marking the reopening of a water treatment plant in the Baghdad neighborhood of Bayaa. But among the victims were at least 34 children, who had gathered excitedly in anticipation of candy and cake being handed out by U.S. troops, according to people on the scene.
The Iraqi civil war has already begun.