BAGHDAD — A split provincial council in Diyala has signed a request for the province to be granted regional status, a first step in seeking greater autonomy from the Baghdad government, council members said Tuesday.
The move comes two months after the provincial council in Salahuddin, former dictator Saddam Hussein's home province, declared semiautonomous status, and reflects disenchantment and sectarian rivalries as the U.S. departs Iraq. Sixteen of 29 Diyala provincial council members signed the request — all members of the Kurdish and opposition Iraqiya blocs, which are suspicious of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government.
In a sign of the split, demonstrators in Diyala took to the streets on Tuesday to oppose the move, saying that it came during an unofficial session.
"That is why it is not legal in any way. A foreign agenda is behind this announcement," said Muthanna al Timimi, head of the council's security committee, who opposed the move.
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Timimi said by phone that he couldn't reach his work because of what he described as crowded demonstrations, during which protesters demanded that the request be withdrawn or they would stay in the streets.
Diyala is an agricultural province located between Baghdad and the Iranian border, and it is home to Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds. Salahuddin province, which made its request in October during an official session, is majority Sunni.
Although many administrative hurdles remain before the province could gain regional status — currently enjoyed only by Iraq's northern Kurdish region — backers of the move said that it was legal and hoped it would proceed.
"There is nothing in the constitution that talks about the necessity of holding an official session for the council to sign the request," said Suhad al Hiyali, a member of the provincial council.
Suhad said the request was signed on Sunday after long discussions. She said that the council members had no choice because of mismanagement and corruption in the Baghdad government.
"We tried every legal way with the central government to have administrational and financial authorities that enable the members to practice their role in helping the people who voted for us," Suhad said. "But we failed and that is why we used our last legal right, announcing the region."
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