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BAGHDAD – To get a home or an office built in the central Iraqi province of Salahuddin, contractors have usually had to pay hefty bribes to corrupt officials in Baghdad to clear away the red tape.
It was just one example of the heavy hand that the central government holds over even the smallest details of life in Iraq's provinces. That hand was often corrupt as well. Around 70 percent of the projects that the government committed to fund in Salahuddin existed only on paper, according to Najih al-Mizan, a Sunni lawmaker from the province.
"Some of the funds allocated to the province go missing in Baghdad," said al-Mizan.
The combination of interference and neglect from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad was one reason why many among the predominantly Sunni population of Salahuddin saw the Islamic State group has a possible alternative when its extremist fighters swept into the province the past month, al-Mizan said. People there were so fed up with Baghdad, they were desperate for something new.
Now, Iraq's new government, beleaguered by the Sunni militant onslaught over much of the country, is making a concerted effort to empower local and provincial governments. The aim is in part to draw Sunni support away from the extremists. But it is also a calculation that it is better to have a controlled decentralization of power than to see the country outright fall apart into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish fragments, as many fear.
Until recently in Iraq, getting anything done on a provincial level — even routine business like hiring a street cleaner — required approval from Baghdad. Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations alike have long complained that the central government monopolized power and horded resources, leaving outlying regions to fend for themselves.
Provinces that are home to the Sunni minority have long felt the brunt of discrimination from Shiite authorities in Baghdad, who the Sunnis say would often either neglect their needs or exploit them through corruption. But Shiite provinces were neglected as well, particularly those dominated by Shiite parties not in favor in the capital.
The exclusion intensified feelings of resentment toward the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even among one-time loyalists. That resentment finally led to al-Maliki's replacement last month.
The Islamic State group, which now holds territory stretching from northern Syria across Sunni regions of northern and western Iraq down to the edges of Baghdad, has intentionally sought to benefit from the Sunni resentments of Baghdad. Part of its core strategy has been to establish administration over the land that it controls to win over the population. The group administers courts, cleans streets, fixes roads and even polices traffic.
Haider al-Abadi, named Iraq's prime minister on Sept. 8, has made decentralization a paramount theme in his platform. He plans to give greater autonomy to provincial governments and construct a national guard in which recruits and leadership are conscripted from local populations.
"We have to move away from governing from the center, which is Baghdad, and having to decide all the details for the different governorates — that's important for us," al-Abadi said in a Sept. 17 interview with The Associated Press. "We want to have a real federal state according to the constitution," by giving provinces more power and involving them more in the central government's decision-making for the whole of Iraq.
Decentralization has failed to take off in the past. In 2013, parliament revised a law on provincial powers to spread authorities but the changes were never carried out.
The constitution itself — written under heavy U.S. influence after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein — has strong provisions for decentralization. It allows several provinces to vote to form a region together that would have a large degree of autonomy. That raises the possibility of a Sunni-dominated region in the center and a Shiite-dominated one in the south, similar to the already existing semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
No individual province has tried to officially start the process to create a region, but there have been calls. This week, protesters in the southern city of Basra held demonstrations demanding greater decentralization.
But decentralization also gets lost in the thicket of disputes between Baghdad and the provinces over issues ranging from annual budgets, investment, security, sharing of resources and balance of powers.
The Shiite-majority city of Basra, for example, has everything and nothing. It has little access to drinking water, systematic garbage collection or decent health care — ironic, since Basra is the biggest contributor to Iraq's annual budget with its robust oil reserves.
"We are not even able to build houses for poor people because we have no control over most of Basra's land," said Sabah al-Bazaouni, a member of Basra's provincial council. "The Oil Ministry has the upper hand in this issue (and) does not care whether our people are living in houses or on the sidewalk."
Iraq has had a long history of autocratic rule since gaining independence from the British in 1932, with the central government in Baghdad maintaining a tight grip on all provincial matters. At the time, only the Kurds fought the centralized model of governance as it stymied their ambitions for an independent Kurdish state.
But in the decades that followed, Shiites clashed with the Sunni-led government claiming that they were treated like second-class citizens, persecuted, arrested, and denied basic rights. When the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, tables turned and Sunnis expressed similar grievances about the Shiites who came to power.
One complaint voiced particularly by Sunnis and Kurds is over abuses by the security forces and Shiite militias. Al-Maliki inflamed tensions in the military by dismissing some Sunni officers and replacing them with Shiite officers loyal to him.
Al-Abadi cited the problem of indiscriminant shelling of urban areas by the military as a source of bitterness toward the central government, and within days of taking office he banned the armed forces from such shelling. The national guard plan also aims to reduce the resentments by bringing locals more into security duties.
But the fear over decentralization has always been that empowering provinces will only get the ball rolling faster toward the disintegration of the war-torn nation.
"There is the risk that federalism may eventually lead to secessionism," said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "It has already taken root in Iraqi Kurdistan, and once the territorial integrity of Iraq is compromised, there's no assurance that things won't unravel further."