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March 24, 2017

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Arrest of alleged Baathists highlights Iraqi challenges

Maliki may also have to contend with additional bids for autonomy, according to John Drake, an analyst with Britain-based private security firm AKE.

"Nuri al-Maliki will have to continue tackling various calls for autonomy, not least as Kurdistan appears to be doing so well economically," Drake said. "However, he does not appear to have any intention of giving up centralized government."

"The Salaheddin call may be a symbolic protest, aimed at making a bold statement to the central government. We may see similar demands in other provinces," he forecast.

"The tactic may evolve into some sort of move aimed at encouraging central government to distribute more regional funding, or to allow for a greater number of constituent seats to be held in a province, for example."

Anbar, another Sunni-majority province, appears set to follow Salaheddin's example, with its provincial council chief, Mamoun Sammi Rasheed, warning that "all options are available to us, including announcing Anbar as a region."

But he later seemed to back down, instead urging council members "not to create a crisis with the government."

Reidar Visser, an analyst and editor of the Iraq website www.historiae.org, said the arrests were problematic, while the autonomy vote and Maliki's response pose potential challenges to Iraqi unity.

"The arrests seem to be lacking a clear legal basis whereas both proponents and opponents of the Salaheddin federalism bid are twisting the legal framework in order to make their case," Visser said.

Meanwhile, "Maliki is basically labeling a whole province as neo-Baathist, which raises questions about his ability to remain prime minister for all of Iraq."

"What (are) federalist ideas today might turn into separatist ideas tomorrow if Maliki remains unable to give the people of Salaheddin some concessions and hope for the future," he said.

While Maliki is strongly opposed to the autonomy vote, Iraq's Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, has termed the council's request "constitutional."

Analysts expressed doubt that Salaheddin will actually become autonomous, and over its viability for a province of some 1.2 million people which faces economic problems.

"I think it would be very difficult," Saffar said, noting that Salaheddin is not "particularly rich in natural resources."

According to a February 2011 fact sheet on Salaheddin from the U.N. Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit, 39.9 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of US$2.2 per day, while unemployment is "above average at 18 percent."

In any case, Salaheddin appears set, at least for now, to press on with the autonomy bid.

"We will not turn back on our demand for establishing an economic and administrative region," Salaheddin governor Abdullah told AFP on Saturday, adding that "the matter is now in the hands of the citizens."

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