VP choice Biden unpopular in Iraq for autonomy plan

BAGHDAD Sat Aug 23, 2008 2:00pm EDT

Senator Joe Biden speaks to students at the University of Northern Iowa during a campaign stop in Cedar Falls, Iowa November 27, 2007. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Senator Joe Biden speaks to students at the University of Northern Iowa during a campaign stop in Cedar Falls, Iowa November 27, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Senator Joe Biden may be one of the only U.S. politicians that can get Iraq's feuding Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians to agree. But not in a good way.

Across racial and religious boundaries, Iraqi politicians on Saturday bemoaned Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama's choice of running mate, known in Iraq as the author of a 2006 plan to divide the country into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.

"This choice of Biden is disappointing, because he is the creator of the idea of dividing Iraq," Salih al-Mutlaq, head of National Dialogue, one of the main Sunni Arab blocs in parliament, told Reuters.

"We rejected his proposal when he announced it, and we still reject it. Dividing the communities and land in such a way would only lead to new fighting between people over resources and borders. Iraq cannot survive unless it is unified, and dividing it would keep the problems alive for a long time."

Delaware senator Biden unveiled his plan to divide Iraq into a federation of autonomous Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish zones at a time when sectarian killing in Iraq was out of control and getting worse.

"The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group -- Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab -- room to run its own affairs," he proposed in a May 2006 piece he co-wrote in the New York Times.

"The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues," Biden said.

LESS RELEVANT

At the time, many Iraqi politicians hinted at a need for communities to be divided. Since then, however, violence has ebbed and nearly all mainstream politicians speak out against such ideas.

"The original 'Biden plan' seems less relevant in Iraq today than at any point," said Reidar Visser, a Norwegian academic and editor of the Iraq-focused website historiae.org. "The trend in parliament is clearly in a more national direction, with political parties coming together across sectarian divides.

"In other words, there is a very strong Iraqi mobilization against precisely the core elements of the Biden plan, and it would be extremely unwise of the Democratic Party to make Biden's ideas the centerpiece of their Iraq strategy," he added.

Today, even Kurds who already have their own autonomous enclave in northern Iraq say they oppose the "Biden plan".

"We don't support establishing federal regions on a sectarian basis. For example our region is not ethnic, it contains Kurds and non-Kurds. The regions should be established on a geographic basis," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

Ezzet al-Shabender, a member of parliament from the secularist Iraqi List of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, actually credited the broad-based disgust triggered by Biden's proposal for helping Iraqi politicians bury their differences.

"His project was the reason behind the unity of many political blocs that once differed in viewpoints," he said, comparing it to the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 British note that backed the creation of Israel and is regarded across the Arab world as the ultimate colonial injustice.

"Such a person, if he would assume the vice-presidency post, would not serve to improve Iraq-USA relations."

(Editing by Robert Hart)

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