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Iraq federalism key to peace and democracy in Middle East

The constitutional right to self-determination of Iraq's ethnic minorities could provide a template for the settlement of ethnic disputes across the Middle East, claims the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) which works with Iran's Ahwazi Arab community.

Iraqi Kurds are currently locked in negotiations over the future Iraqi constitution, facing opposition from the Iranian backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest party in the Iraqi coalition government. The Kurdish National Alliance has stated that it "will not accept any postponement" of its demands for a federalist Iraq with full autonomy for the Kurdish areas.

President Jalal Talabani, an Iraqi Kurd, has also backed a federal, devolved system of government in Iraq as the completion of the draft constitution approaches its 15 August deadline. The Kurds and other ethnic groups are opposing the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian-style Islamic republic, with power held by the Sunni Arab majority.

Iraqi Turkomen, who make up 13% of the Iraqi population and whose homeland overlaps with Iraq's Kurdish areas, are also seeking representation under a new Iraqi constitution. They claim they have been sidelined and victimised by successive Iraqi regimes and the autonomous Kurdish administration. They fear a "Kurdification" of their homeland and oppose Kurdish demands to include Kirkuk into a Kurdish zone of authority.

"Iran's non-Persian minorities believe a federal Iraqi state would boost democracy and self-determination across the region, giving a template for Iran, which is the region's most ethnically diverse country," said BAFS spokesman Nasser Ban-Assad.

"Few Iranians want a return of the monarchy, they are seeking a genuine alternative to the Islamic Republic.

"Full representation of all minorities in Iraq would set a precedent for countries such as Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Syria and Iran where ethnic and religious minorities are facing political repression and economic marginalisation.

"Devolution and self-determination should be a requisite for democratic reform in the Middle East. Federalism in Iraq would fuel pressures for reform across the Middle East."

The Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI), set up in February by parties representing Iran's largest ethnic minorities - Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Balochis and Azeris - advocates the devolution of power to minorities and sub-national regions. Minority groups have met political specialists from European nations with federal structures, such as Switzerland, to understand how devolution works in practice.

Apart from the United Arab Emirates, a federation of small emirates which are distinguished by their ruling families rather than ethnic identity, there are no federal states in the region. A federal Iraqi state would mark a radical departure from the centralised and autocratic systems of government currently in power.