The son and heir apparent of Iraq's top Shiite politician has come out strongly in favor of autonomy for Iraq's religiously and ethnically divided regions, a potentially explosive issue on Iraq's already highly polarized political landscape.
Ammar al-Hakim, who is being groomed to take over the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's largest Shiite party, has been a firm supporter of federalism from the outset.
But his unusually strident language on Saturday appeared to signal growing impatience with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's inaction on key issues and his failure to bring fractured groups together.
Addressing hundreds of supporters at the party's Baghdad headquarters, al-Hakim called on Iraqis to press ahead with the creation of self-rule regions, but cautioned that the country's unity must be safeguarded.
"Federalism is one way to accomplish this goal," he said.
He said Baghdad's monopoly of power over decision-making and national wealth had turned the central government into a "tyrannical and dominating" body.
"I call on the sons of our nation to create their [self-rule] regions," al-Hakim said.
The idea of breaking up Iraq into self-rule entities has gained traction in Washington after two US senators, Joseph Biden and Sam Brownback, proposed giving more control to ethnically and religiously divided regions.
A nonbinding resolution to that effect won Senate approval last month, but Republicans supported it only after the measure was amended to make clear that US President George W. Bush should press for a new federalized system only if the Iraqis wanted it.
Al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians denounced the decision as an infringement on Iraq's sovereignty. But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and firm proponent of federalism, praised the resolution, saying it cemented Iraq's unity and opposed its breakup.
Al-Hakim is the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Supreme Council leader who was diagnosed with cancer in May and has been receiving chemotherapy treatment in Iran.
The younger al-Hakim delivered the remarks in a sermon commemorating the start of the Muslim Id al-Fitr feast that marks the end of Ramadan. His father, the organization's patriarch, greeted well-wishers at the ceremony but did not address the crowd.
The Supreme Council has been a staunch backer of federalism and wants the country's mainly Shiite and oil-rich south become a self-rule region similar to that established 16 years ago by minority Kurds in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Constitution, adopted two years ago, provides for a federal system. A year ago, parliament pushed through a law allowing the formation of federal regions but not for 18 months.
Regardless, federal regions cannot be formed before nationwide elections are first held for local councils. Those councils will decide on seeking union with other provinces to form a federal region. No date has been set for the vote because parliament has yet to pass legislation on the organization of local elections.
The law is one of several Washington has been pressing al-Maliki's government to push through parliament to enhance reconciliation.
Others would ensure equitable distribution of oil wealth and reinstatement of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein loyalists in government jobs.
Al-Maliki has failed to achieve progress on the wanted legislation despite a major eight-month-old security drive in Baghdad and surrounding regions launched in part to give him the room he needs to make political compromises.
The joint US-Iraqi operation has reduced the level of violence but failed to stem it altogether. On Saturday, a spokesman said Iraqi forces clashed with suspected al-Qaeda-linked insurgents during a four-day operation in a Sunni enclave in central Baghdad.
Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi said 48 gunmen were killed in the fighting, in which Iraqi army soldiers were supported by local Sunni tribesmen and other civilians who have turned against al-Qaeda in the volatile Fadhil neighborhood.
Saturday, however, saw Iraq's civilian death toll fall to its lowest level in recent memory, with only four people killed or found dead nationwide, reports said.
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