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Saddam's home province declares regional autonomy in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Salahuddin, home region of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, declared itself a semi-autonomous region Thursday, a move that local officials said will bring more revenue to the region north of Baghdad but which critics said will weaken the Iraqi state.

If the Salahuddin council succeeds with its drive, which must overcome several hurdles, among them a popular referendum, it will become the second semi-autonomous region after Kurdistan, which achieved its status in the 1970s.

The decision in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, is expected to spur Anbar, the neighboring mostly Sunni province, to follow suit.

The vote was 20-0 with eight members of the council not present, said Sabhan Mulla Chyad, the acting head of the provincial council. But the council chose a day when Ammar Youssif, the head of the council, was in Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage, and his view of the decision wasn't known.

Chyad said the province had no choice but to declare its new status to counter what he called the domination of the central government over the provincial council authorities.

'We have swallowed the poison and been patient for eight years," he said. "Our sons took part in the political process and joined the security forces to fight al Qaida and other insurgents groups. We sacrificed a lot but we were completely ignored by the central government."

Ahmed Abdul Jabbar, the deputy governor of the province, said declaring itself a region would widen the provincial council's authority to improve its economic situation and increase its share of the Iraqi budget by $3 billion from the current $200 million.

The council must now send the decision to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who under the national constitution must allocate funds to the Independent High Electoral Commission to hold a referendum.

Abdul Jabbar said the decision was widely welcomed.

"Since the news about the region announcement spread, thousands of people called and congratulated us for this great step," he told McClatchy.

Not everyone in the province agreed.

Qutaiba Ibrahim, a Sunni lawmaker from Salahuddin, said he was upset over the decision and totally rejected it. Ibrahim, a member of the province and a member al the Iraqia al Baidha bloc, a breakaway bloc from the Iraqiya faction in the national parliament, said the local council of Anbar province is now following the same course. He predicted that Anbar would also declare itself an independent region during the next week.

"Although the constitution mentions the right of forming regions, such steps don't make Iraqi better. In fact, they make Iraqi even weaker and weaker," said Ibrahim. He said there are countries in the region, which he wouldn't name, that support the politicians who seek regional autonomy in order to destroy Iraq. He appeared to be referring to Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has strained ties with Shiite-led Iraq.

Salih al Mutlaq, the Sunni deputy of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said he holds Maliki responsible for the decision of the Salahuddin provincial council. He said in a statement that the irresponsible policy of the government, including the arrest this week of member of the banned Baath party, would weaken Iraqi unity.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad last night, 12 civilians were killed and another 45 injured when two bombs were detonated in the northern neighborhood of Ur, bordering on the rundown Shiite section of the capital known as Sadr City.

Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent)


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