BAGHDAD, Iraq — Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki Saturday lashed out 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.
Maliki spoke two days after the provincial council in Tikrit, Hussein'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 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.
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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.
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.
Maliki, who reportedly had a shouting match with Saleh Mutlak, his Sunni deputy, earlier this week over a related issue, Saturday cast the provincial council's move as Baathist-instigated. "The Baathists want to make Salahuddin province a safe house for them, but it will not happen because of the awareness of the people of Salahuddin," he told Iraqiya.
The acting head of the Salahuddin council, Sabhan Mulla Chyad, rejected Maliki's assertions and said the national parliament plays no role in a province's move to regional status. The outcome depends solely on the results of the referendum, set up by the Independent High Electoral Commission, said Chyad, who voiced confidence that regional status will revive the province's fortunes.
"If anyone saw the demonstrations and celebrations of the residents of the cities in Salahuddin province, he would be sure the decision of the provincial council to change the province into a region will be approved," Chyad said. As for becoming a safe house for Baathists, Chyad told McClatchy: "The people would not allow such a thing to happen."
Maliki's political opponents said the arrests of members of the disbanded Baath Party, which ruled Iraqi for more than four decades, were illegal and done mostly without any judicial approval.
Maliki told Iraqiya that 615 Baathists, mostly from the central and southern provinces, had been arrested and that Iraqi security forces had followed all required legal procedures including obtaining warrants of arrest. Maliki said there was a great deal of information and evidence linking those arrested to activities that threatened the safety and security of the state.
"We should differentiate between the Baathists who work in the governmental establishments, harmonized with the political process and fought terror, and the Saddamist Baathists who cooperate with al Qaida and work to collapse the political process," Maliki said.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman contributed.)
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