By CONN HALLINAN
"......Maliki's Dawa Party and his allies in the ISCI, have long been at loggerheads with Muqtada over three major issues.
First, Muqtada is a nationalist and deeply opposed to the U.S. occupation, while Maliki and the ISCI's leader, Abdelaziz al-Hakim, support the presence of U.S. troops as a shield against the nationalists.
Second, Muqtada supports a unified Iraq with a strong central government. Maliki and Hakim, on the other hand, have pushed for dismembering Iraq into separate provinces dominated by the country's three major ethnic groups -Sunnis in the west, Kurds in the north, and Shiites in the south. Since most of the oil reserves are in the south, as is the country's only port, whoever controls the south essentially controls 70 percent of Iraq's economy.
Which leads to the third point of contention, and one closely tied to the first two: Muqtada's followers, along with most of the Sunnis and Iraq's illegal, but still powerful, trade unions want Iraq to keep control of its oil. Maliki, Hakim and the U.S., on the other hand, want to privatize Iraq's enormous oil wealth and open it to exploitation by international oil cartels.
According to Leila Fadel of the McClatchy newspaper chain, when Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Iraq Mar. 17-18, he "strong armed" Iraq's Presidency Council into passing a provincial election law. The law sets up an October election in which the various provinces will vote on whether they want to remain a unified country or splinter into separate provinces.
Cheney also sealed an agreement with Maliki to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, in spite of the fact that seven out of 10 Iraqis want the occupation to end.
If the U.S. and Maliki and Hakim are to pull off dismembering Iraq and privatizing the oil, they need to win the election in the south. About 20 percent of the Middle East's oil reserves are in Basra Province.
But the Mahdi Army has far more support among the Shiia masses than either the Dawa Party or the ISCI........"