Iraqi MPs have passed a law enabling the country to be split into semi-autonomous regions, despite warnings that it could mean the end of Iraq as a sovereign state.
The federalism Bill, introduced last month by a Shia party, passed the 275-member parliament by 141 to 0. Its opponents had boycotted the vote in a failed attempt to prevent enough MPs being present to reach the required 50 per cent quorum.
Provinces will be permitted to band together to form self-ruling regions if a third of provincial legislators request it and the move is backed by local referendums.
As a result, a Shia state is likely to emerge in the south, similar to the autonomous region the Kurds have established in the north. It will be able to levy taxes and post armed guards on its borders.
The law has been bitterly opposed by Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein but form only a fifth of the population. They fear that the Shia south will become a satellite of Iran, and that they will be left with a central area with little oil.
In an attempted compromise move, the Bill included a clause preventing the formation of any federal regions for 18 months. But Sunni MPs still tried to prevent its passage by boycotting the session. They were joined by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric who opposes federalism, saying it risks causing the country's break-up.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the largest Sunni party, warned after the vote that the law could provoke even worse sectarian violence. "This is the beginning of the plan to divide Iraq," he said.
Nasaar al-Rubaie, a Sadr supporter, said: "The present conditions are not conducive to establishing regions because we lack a strong central government that can overrule the regions. The central authority is actually weakening, instead of being solidified and strengthened."
A federalised Iraq was one of the key principles accepted in the country's constitution written last year, but the new law is the first time a legal mechanism has been established setting out how this will be implemented.
Its Shia supporters argue that it will prevent Iraq's regions from ever again being dominated by a central dictator such as Saddam.
Geopolitics: After North Korea's nuclear bomb test, the People's Republic of China insists that "punishment should not be the purpose" of any response. Maybe the problem isn't North Korea, but China.
On the surface, China's unwillingness to get tough with its client is perplexing. North Korea's intransigence on nuclear weapons increases risks on the Korean Peninsula, something China says it doesn't want.
China is said to be especially worried about the prospect of a collapse of Kim Jong Il's murderous regime, sending millions of North Korea's 23 million people across the border as refugees.
Yet it's clear none of the jawboning on North Korea has worked. Not China's attempt to talk Kim Jong Il into giving up nukes. Certainly not former President Clinton's efforts to sign a deal with the Hermit Kingdom, giving it more trade and aid. Not President Bush's six-party talks. Not even South Korea's "sunshine policy." Nothing.
So what, short of war, would work? The simple answer is a naval blockade and trade quarantine that should isolate North Korea and bring it to its knees in short order. But as we noted here Wednesday, China would have to help, since it supplies North Korea with about 90% of its energy and 80% of its consumer goods.
China, however, won't play ball. Why? It's already boosting defense spending at a double-digit rate to counter U.S. and Japanese influence in the Pacific. An enhanced U.S. and Japanese presence, along with a democratic and unified Korea, would make its job that much tougher.
There's another, more ominous reason for China's reluctance to help: The country is responsible for much of the proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorist states in recent years. That includes its main client, North Korea.
As the State Department noted in a 2003 report, "Chinese state-owned corporations have engaged in transfer activities with Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Libya that are clearly contrary to China's commitments to the U.S."
China's actions, the report added, "call into serious question China's stated commitment to controlling missile proliferation."
China signed agreements with the U.S. in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2002 to halt shipments of nuclear and missile technology to rogue nations. It broke each one in what can only be called a cynical game that its government still plays with the West.
North Korea, which tested a nuclear weapon Oct. 9, is a case in point. Much of its cutting-edge nuclear technology most recently came from the now-defunct A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Khan swapped nuclear know-how with North Korea for missile technology.
Where did Khan and Pakistan get that know-how? From China. And where did North Korea get the missile technology it bartered with Khan? Also from China. Thus, a picture emerges of a China not at the periphery of WMD proliferation, but at its center.
China plays the same game with Iran — trading nuclear technology for oil — though it denies such an arrangement.
The Chinese need to be pulled aside and told: No more sales of nuclear technology to rogue states, or their $250 billion in exports to the U.S. may be threatened. That ought to move talks along.
The Bush administration made secret overtures to former Iran president Mohammed Khatami during his visit to the United States last month in an attempt to establish a back channel via the ex-leader.
American officials made the approach as part of a strategy to isolate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Khatami's hard-line successor, by using the former president as a conduit to the Iranian people.
Muslim organisations that refuse to defend core British values and fail to take a "pro-active" role in the fight against extremism are to lose access to millions of pounds of Government funding, it was disclosed yesterday.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, said it was time for a "fundamental rebalancing" of relations with Muslim organisations if a new generation of terrorists was not to grow up in this country.
The tough new approach would involve shifting grants towards those organisations which accepted and promoted a set of "non-negotiable values" including respect for the law and freedom of speech.
"It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists," Miss Kelly said in a speech to Muslim groups in London.
In an apparent threat to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the umbrella group for Muslims which has received more than £200,000 from Government in the past two years, Miss Kelly highlighted its refusal to take part in Holocaust Memorial Day.
"I can't help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other," she said.