(IPS) BAGHDAD --
Shiites vehemently rejected the Kurdish-proposed federalism of Iraq, joining an increasingly growing Arab, Sunni and Turkoman opposition to the drive.
"The first and foremost priority should be given to our main goal: the independence of Iraq. Our Kurdish brothers should bear this in mind," the representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Sheikh Sadrudin al-Qabanji, told hundreds of Iraqis in Friday, January 2, prayers.
He said the legitimate rights of the Kurds can be tackled later "after reaching this end" and "all Iraqis [now] should act in concert to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq." "I beg you Kurdish brothers to work for the common welfare and do not think narrow-mindedly," he added.
Anti-occupation firebrand Moqtada Al-Sadr said the United States has forgot the fact that Iraq is a unified country and federalism will have grave consequences on all Iraqis, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"All Iraqis are belonging to one country; both the north and the south are indispensable for each other Arabs are Iraqis and Kurds are Iraqis," the Shiite leader told the faithful in Friday sermon.
Kurdish representatives on Iraq's U.S.-installed interim Governing Council have submitted a bill to establish a federal Iraq without waiting for a constitutional convention promised for 2005.
All five Kurdish members of the Council are backing the bill, including the heads of the two main former rebel factions, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, said Bakhtiar Amin, assistant to Mahmmoud Othman, another of the bill's five proponents.
"We presented this text because we want to enter into the details of the question of federalism now and don't want to put off the subject until after the new constitution is adopted," Amin said.
Under an agreement reached between the council and the U.S.-led occupation administering Iraq, the occupation is to hand over sovereignty to a provisional government by the end of June.
The bill foresees the expansion of Kurdish autonomy from the three northern provinces which rebel factions ruled in defiance of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to include the oil-rich province of Tamim around Kirkuk and parts of the ethnically mixed provinces of Nineveh and Diyala.
These areas were majority Kurdish at the time of the 1957 census and have only since had their ethnic makeup changed because of the deliberate policy of "Arabization" carried out by Saddam's regime, the bill says.
Arab and Turkomans, Sunnis or Shiites, in the north also oppose a federal Iraq.
Both took to the streets last month to protest Kurdish bids to dominate the ethnically-split oil hub of Kirkuk.
Five people were killed and dozens others injured in the bloody anti-federalism clashes.
The Kurdish move revived fears that the country could plunge into ethnic conflict, as Iraqis Sunnis and other ethnic groups are bitterly resentful of being marginalized in post-war Iraq.
On Saturday, January 3, Talabani and Barzani held a series of talks with top U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, and his British deputy, Jeremy Greenstock.
Emerging from the talks, Talabani said the talks yielded "good results," but did not give further details.
But the President of the U.S.-sanctioned Iraq's interim Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, underlined Saturday his commitment to a federal Iraq, but counseled the country's Kurds, eager for virtual autonomy, to be patient and not rush the issue.
"We have accepted federalism in principle, but there are different forms of federalism in the world and I cannot tell you for the moment what the final form will be in Iraq," Pachachi, the 25-member council's president for January, said on Iraqi television late Saturday.
Pachachi, a member of Iraq's Sunni community, committed himself to a federal framework that would most probably grant the Kurds virtual autonomy in the north and similar liberties to Iraq's Shiite majority in the south.
But Pachachi stressed the Governing Council could not decide the issue as it was not an elected government, rather it should be tabled by a constitutional convention, chosen through elections slated for March 2005.
"The relationship between the Kurdish region and the central government will be defined by the constitution which will be drafted by a freely elected body," Pachachi said.
"Since the founding of Iraq, all the world has recognized Kurds constitute a separate ethnic group, which led to the granting of special status for the Kurdish region," Pachachi said in a televised address.
Mohsen Abdul Hamid, a prominent member of the council, told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that federalism would "beef not weaken the unity of Iraq."
He said the Kurds themselves are determined that Baghdad would remain "the capital of a federal Iraq."
Iraq's interim Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zebari, for his part, told reporters Sunday, January 4, that it has not been decided yet which kind of a regime Iraq will have, whether royal, republican or federal.
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