Shiite autonomy question complicates talks
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi leaders tried to overcome a roadblock -- the issue of Shiite autonomy -- on Thursday as they worked to meet Monday's deadline to draft a new constitution.
Some Shiite leaders want to carve out a section of southern Iraq and give it greater independence. The oil-rich region is populated largely by Shiite Arabs.
The idea is to set up an autonomous zone similar to the one that the Kurds have had in three northern provinces since the end of the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim set out his plan at a rally Thursday in the city of Najaf -- a city dear to Shiites. The influential leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was greeted with chants of "yes, yes to Hakim" and "yes, yes to Islam."
"Regarding the central-southern region, we think that it is necessary to form one entire region for central and southern Iraq due to the common characteristics of the residents of these parts and the unjust policies which were adopted against them," he said. "And we should not miss the chance to achieve this sacred target and there should be constitutional guarantees to achieve this."
Shiite Arabs, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs -- the dominant groups in Iraq -- have been haggling over issues involving federalism, the division of oil wealth, the roles of Islam and women, and the status of the city of Kirkuk -- where Kurds, Arabs and another significant group in the northern region, the Turkmens, co-exist amid political tension.
Observers believe many of the tough issues now being discussed could be sidestepped to complete the draft. U.S. officials have urged the government to meet these deadlines to move along the political process.
The transitional National Assembly has until Monday to approve the draft constitution, and Iraqis must vote on it in a national referendum by October 15.
If the constitution is approved in the vote, an election is scheduled to be held in December for a new government. Failure would force delays.
President Bush said Thursday that he believes the deadline will be met.
He said that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad briefed him on the difficult issues that still have to be sorted out.
"Hopefully, the drafters of the constitution understand our strong belief that women ought to be treated equally in the Iraqi society," Bush said. "But those are issues that still are out there. And he did say that there seems to be a spirit of cooperation and a deep desire for people to work closely together."
It is unclear how many legislators back al-Hakim's idea, but he is extremely influential among Shiites.
It also is not known where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, stands on Shiite autonomy.
The issue opens a Pandora's box for the constitutional process.
Al-Hakim's position is at odds with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of the Shiite Dawa Party. Al-Jaafari and his allies have expressed opposition to a Shiite autonomous region.
Sunni Arabs -- who Iraqis desperately want to pull into the political process -- are expected to oppose regionalism because of its economic implications.
Much of the country's riches are concentrated in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south, so Sunni Arabs would not stand to gain from oil revenue-sharing.
Shiite autonomy also would further weaken the collective identity of Iraq.
Shiite Arabs are the majority in Iraq with 60 percent of the population. The Sunni Arabs -- who number between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population -- once prevailed politically and culturally under Saddam Hussein. But they have been marginalized since the dictator was ousted, and many have supported the insurgency.
Their support is needed for the development of a democratic Iraq and the establishment of peace.
Aneesh Raman and Cal Perry and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.
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