Carving up Iraq into self-ruled regions could lead to more strife and the country's breakup, premier Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, also accused the country's Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of impeding the political process, saying he was to blame for a backlog of draft laws adopted by parliament but not yet ratified by the three-man presidential council of which he is a member.
He said al-Hashemi's Iraq Accordance Front, parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc with 44 of the house's 275 seats, did not represent the country's Sunni Arab minority and that he had given up on the bloc's five Cabinet ministers returning to his 18-month-old government.
He said he planned to replace the five who quit in August to protest al-Maliki's policies with candidates from the Sunni Anbar province and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul.
"The issue has been resolved and we are in the final selection stage," he said.
In an interview published Tuesday in Al-Hayat, an influential London-based, Arabic-language newspaper, al-Maliki also staged a spirited defense of his government's record in the face of persistent charges that it followed a Shiite agenda at the expense of the Sunni Arabs.
He said Sunni Arabs made up 40 to 50 percent of army commanders in disproportion to their estimated 20 percent share of the country's population. He also said unemployment and inflation rates have been reduced to 16 percent from highs of 50 and 60 percent respectively.
He cited the strengthening of the Iraqi currency, the dinar, against the dollar as another proof that his government's policies were working.
Al-Maliki's comments on the proposed creation of self-rule regions similar to that set up by Iraq's Kurds in three northern provinces 16 years ago were his most detailed to date on the thorny topic. His rejection of the extensive powers proposed for such regions places him on a collision course with one of his main backers, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC.
The council, Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, has been strongly advocating the creation of a federal region in Iraq's mainly Shiite south that would encompass nine of Iraq's 18 regions.
Al-Maliki, who did not mention the Supreme Council by name but left no doubt that he was referring to it, said he supported a federal system in Iraq, but warned: "Not everything that's good will succeed without adequate preparation."
He said he was in favor of a system that provides for a strong federal government.
"I have stated my view candidly on this issue and that is ... the federalism that's wanted by some and which, by the way, is facing opposition from many parties, could leave us without a state, with division, strife and dispute."
The principle of federalism is enshrined in the constitution adopted two years ago in a nationwide vote. Sunni Arabs voted against the constitution then because of their opposition to several clauses, including those pertaining to federalism and the country's identity.
They, however, have since moderated their opposition but held on to their demand that the central government remains strong under a federal Iraq. Other Shiite parties beside al-Maliki's Dawa also have reservations about the extent of powers given to proposed regions and believe that the whole question should be shelved until the country is stabilized.
Turning to al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, al-Maliki said he was to blame for a total of 26 draft laws being held up at the presidential council, which is led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and includes Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite.
All three must sign off on legislation sent to them by parliament for ratification before they can become laws. Al-Maliki gave no details on the backlog or say why al-Hashemi did not sign off, but the charge was the latest barb in a deepening and public row between the two men.
Al-Hashemi has been a sharp critic of al-Maliki, accusing him of adopting sectarian policies and that he and a small clique of Dawa party stalwarts were monopolizing power.
in Al-Hayat interview, al-Maliki complained that certain groups which he did not name have been seeking to turn Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors against his government by spreading the notion that it was a sectarian administration under the influence of Shiite Iran.
Al-Maliki was apparently referring to Sunni Arab politicians and claimed that members of the once-dominant minority rallied behind his government when it became clear to them that it was even handed.
"The turning point came when some politicians lost the bet they placed on foiling the political process by accusing us of sectarianism," said al-Maliki.
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