BAGHDAD Moves by some of Iraq's mainly Sunni Muslim provinces toward increased autonomy threaten to heighten sectarian tensions and put pressure on Iraq's already frail central government as U.S. troops depart at the end of the year.
Just weeks before the last American troops leave, growing appeals for local control mark disenchantment with the Shi'ite Muslim-led government and could widen rifts between the country's Sunni and Shi'ite communities.
Desire for provincial power has simmered for years in Iraq, a maelstrom of ethnic, sectarian and tribal conflict. In Basra province, some residents fed up with lagging development want more control of their oilfields, among the world's largest.
But a recent declaration of autonomy by Salahuddin province, where former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown is located, has sharpened the debate.
"The Salahuddin declaration, and what happened after that, proves sectarian conflict still exists and is strong in Iraq's political scene," said Yahya Kubaisi, an analyst at Iraq's Institute for Strategic Studies.
Salahuddin's bid was partly an angry reaction to a central government arrest campaign that snared more than 600 people authorities said were former military officers and members of Saddam's banned Baath party. Baghdad said there was a Baathist plot to seize power once U.S. troops depart.
Iraq is slowly getting back on its feet after decades of war. Sectarian fighting peaked in 2006-7, but Iraqi forces continue to battle a Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias.
AN OLD STORY
The issue of autonomy is not new in Iraq. Minority Kurds in the north have enjoyed semi-autonomy for years since Western powers imposed a no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War.
But the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad are locked in disputes over land and oil. The central government heatedly objected to a recent deal between the KRG and U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil to explore for oil in the north.
In other parts of the country, Iraqis are impatient with shortages of power, water, jobs and housing.
"For us, establishing autonomy is a sore choice but it is an inevitable one," said Omar Hassan, head of the municipal council in Samarra, one of Salahuddin's main cities.
"It's because of dismissive, exclusionary and marginalising central government policies. People are fed up," he said.
Autonomy would give a province more power over finances, administration and laws, and an upper hand in supervising public property, which could loosen Baghdad's grip on oil facilities.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who took part in writing the constitution in 2005, supports powerful central government.
In both public pronouncements and in private meetings with tribal leaders, his government has tried to quiet the autonomy movement, partly out of concern that it could lead to instability as the U.S. troop withdrawal hits high gear, with the remaining 18,000 scheduled to be gone before December 31.
The Baath Party was banned after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, who was later executed. The exclusion of Baathists has been an open wound in Salahuddin.
"No less than 60 percent of the population of Salahuddin were Baathists," provincial council member Sabhan Mula Chiyad said. "They have been excluded from top jobs according to the de-Baathification law but it's not logical to de-Baathify them for life."
Iraqi officials have long expressed concern that Baathists would try to retake power when U.S. troops depart. Maliki said ex-Baath Party members want to use Salahuddin as a safe haven.
Autonomy tensions have simmered for months. Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said this year minority Sunnis might consider seceding if Baghdad didn't treat them more fairly.
Maliki warned in July that secession by any group would lead to bloodshed and said while Iraq's constitution allows provinces some autonomy but does not permit secession.
"We believe that this would lead to grave consequences," Khalid al-Attiya, a senior member of Maliki's Dawa Party, said at a news conference on Wednesday. "We need wisdom in dealing with this issue to maintain the unity of Iraq."
In the mainly Shi'ite southern oil hub of Basra, autonomy talk has bubbled for years as residents watch crude exports increasing and lose patience with power blackouts, joblessness and slow development of housing and businesses.
The constitution says a public referendum has to be held to determine autonomy. The central government must send any formal request for autonomy to the electoral commission within 15 days.
Salahuddin Governor Ammar Tuama said Baghdad has already missed the constitutional deadline.
"We will meet with the president, as he is the guardian of the constitution. We will try to convince him to intervene," Tuama said. "So far, we are not seeking an escalation."
(Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)