A SENIOR Iraqi Shia leader yesterday called for an autonomous region to be created for Shiite Muslims across the oil-rich south of the country just days before a deadline for agreement on a new draft constitution.
Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), spelled out his demands to tens of thousands of chanting supporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
But minority Sunni and secular opponents, as well as rival Shiites in the coalition national government, swiftly poured cold water on the idea that fuelled fears about sectarian battles over oil and Iranian-style religious rule in the south.
Some saw it as a negotiating tactic ahead of a self-imposed deadline on Monday to present the draft to parliament; a top Shiite negotiator, who dismissed the demand made by Mr al-Hakim, said 16 points were still in dispute.
It was unclear if the row and other arguments over the extent of Islamic law would delay delivery of a text that Washington hopes can help quell the Sunni insurgency.
The crucial issue is the nature of federalism and the quest for wording that will satisfy both Kurdish demands for continued autonomy in the north and Shiite hopes for some new autonomy in the south, as well as addressing concerns among Sunni Arabs and others in the centre that they not be left with a rump Iraqi state deprived of oil.
"If we can deal with that... we should finish in the next few days so the draft will be ready on time," Bahaa al-Araji, a senior Shiite on the constitution drafting panel, said.
"If there were Shiite and Sunni regions it would simply entrench sectarianism and destroy the unity of Iraq."
Western diplomats have made it plain they will not stand for clerical rule in Iraq.