Autonomous regions urged for Iraq

White House rejects Sen. Biden's proposal to let each ethnic group run local affairs


WASHINGTON -- Three years after President Bush declared beneath a "mission accomplished" banner that major combat had ended in Iraq, a leading Senate Democrat proposed yesterday the creation of separate, autonomous regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to counter continuing ethnic violence.

The White House quickly denounced the plan. Bush said in an appearance that Iraq faced "more tough days ahead" but had reached "a turning point" with a new permanent government.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presented his plan as an alternative to the options of a rapid withdrawal or a continuing war. The "third way" Biden proposed would give each of the major ethnic groups in Iraq broad authority to run local affairs. The central Baghdad government would be given limited, but specific, responsibilities for border defense, foreign policy, oil production and revenues.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, about 200 Shiites, many of them women in full-length black abayas, rallied yesterday outside Baghdad's Green Zone to demand that U.S. and Iraqi forces do more to stop attacks on Iraqis.

Some protesters waved large banners with slogans demanding better care for families displaced by sectarian violence. One weeping woman held up the ID card of her husband, saying he was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Two Iraqi men - a soldier and a civilian - emerged from the fortified Green Zone, home of the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government, to meet with the protesters and take notes about their demands.

Such demonstrations are rare in Baghdad because of fears large groups might attract suicide bombers.

In the latest violence, four people were killed yesterday when a bomb exploded in a market in Madain, a mostly Shiite town 14 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said. Two people were wounded.

At least 15 bullet-riddled bodies were found in the capital, the Interior Ministry said. The victims were men aged 20 to 40; all were handcuffed and blindfolded, the ministry said.

In addition, two people were killed yesterday in drive-by shootings in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, police said. They included a former general in Saddam Hussein's army.

Biden's plan for Iraq draws on ideas used to ease murderous conflict among Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia in the 1990s. Regional governments - run by Kurds in the north, Sunnis in central Iraq, but not including Baghdad, and Shiites in the south - "would be responsible for administering their own regions," the senator said. Baghdad would be a federal zone under Biden's proposal.

Such a course would represent a sharp detour from Bush administration policy. The president and the rest of the U.S. foreign policy hierarchy have pressured Iraqi leaders to establish a unified government.

The White House's speedy rejection of the plan suggested it would face steep odds. But the proposal reflected a new effort to position Democrats between those calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq and the president's policy, which polls show is increasingly unpopular and threatens to become a factor in the November congressional elections.

Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who visited Baghdad simultaneously last week for the first top-level meetings with the newly chosen top government leaders there. "It's a new chapter in our partnership," the president said during a photo session in the Rose Garden that followed the Oval Office meeting. "This government is more determined than ever to succeed, and we believe we've got partners to help the Iraqi people realize their dreams."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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