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Key US Senate Democrat Defends Proposal on Iraq

A key Senate Democrat is defending his proposal to divide Iraq into three autonomous regions with a central government in Baghdad. Senator Joe Biden denies Bush administration assertions that the plan represents a partition of the country, saying it is aimed at keeping the country unified.

When Senator Biden argued in an article in the New York Times earlier this week that Iraq should be divided into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish autonomous regions, with a central government in Baghdad, the idea was immediately rejected by the Bush administration, which said it amounted to a partitioning of the country.

But Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the Senate floor Wednesday to argue otherwise -- that the proposal is aimed at keeping the country together.

Biden said his plan would maintain a unified Iraq by allowing each region to run its own affairs while the central government takes charge of common interests.

He said the idea should appeal to the Sunnis, who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and are now concerned about a centralized government run by the majority Shi'ites. He said it should also appeal to the Shi'ites, who are concerned about a Sunni insurrection. "As everyone knows, unless the Sunnis buy in, the insurgency will not stop. If the insurgency is not quelled, continued sectarian violence will erupt," he said.

An influential Republican senator, Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, has called the proposal constructive.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, emerging from a closed briefing with senators on Capitol Hill, said the idea is ultimately for the Iraqis to decide. "I think this is a debate essentially the Iraqis are going to have about this. So far, what they believe (in) is a unity government," he said.

The comments about Iraq come as the Senate is nearing completion of a $109 billion emergency spending package for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rebuilding of the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf coast.

The measure contains $14 billion more in spending than that proposed by President Bush. The president, in an effort to try to control an expanding budget deficit, reiterated his threat to veto the bill if the extra amount is not dropped.