Iraqi Vice President Accuses Prime Minister of Power Grab

Iraq's vice president on Tuesday accused the prime minister of grabbing power in the south and obstructing efforts to rebuild there after years of war, allegations that intensified the campaign to decentralize the government.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to amend the constitution to give the central government more power and curtail those of provincial administrations. He argues the alternative to a strong central government would be chaos.

But Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, whose political party hopes to create and lead a self-ruled region in southern Iraq, said Tuesday a strengthened central government is hindering reconstruction in the Shiite-dominated south.

"The monopoly of power in Baghdad by the government and its ministries must be removed because it has become a hurdle to any development," said Abdul-Mahdi.

"Iraq cannot be left up to the thinking of one official or one department. The constitution and investment laws must be implemented," Abdul-Mahdi added.

The issue of creating a southern region that mirrors the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is coming to the fore with less than two weeks to go before Jan. 31 provincial elections that could reshape local power bases.

Critics say the creation of an autonomous region in southern Iraq would effectively carve Iraq into a Shiite south, a mainly Sunni center and a Kurdish north and that the southern entity would likely fall under Iranian influence. Created in Iran in 1982, the Supreme Council is Tehran's closest ally in Iraq.

Abdul-Mahdi's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is a rival of al-Maliki's Dawa party. The vice president did not mention al-Maliki by name, but his comments were certain to feed the quarrel between the prime minister on one hand and the Supreme Council and its Kurdish allies on the other.

With election-related violence on the rise ahead of the Jan. 31 vote, the head of the independent election commission said Tuesday that a nationwide vehicular curfew would be in force on voting day.

Faraj al-Haidari also told reporters the country's international borders and airports would be closed that day and travel between provinces would be banned.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf would not confirm al-Haidari's comments. Security measures for the vote in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces would be announced later, he said.

Also Tuesday, a senior Iraqi education official escaped an assassination attempt while traveling through central Baghdad, according to a government statement. The attempt came less than a week after the Minister of Higher Education escaped injury when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy in the same district.

The statement said the ministry's undersecretary, Ammar Aziz Mohammed Ali, was not hurt when a roadside bomb hit his convoy midmorning Tuesday. A police officer at the scene said two civilians and three guards were injured. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.