BAGHDAD -- The Shiite heir apparent to a key U.S. political ally added his voice yesterday to calls for the division of Iraq into semiautonomous regions based on sect and ethnicity, throwing down a gauntlet on an issue that has stirred fierce emotions in Iraq.
Ammar Hakim's statement before hundreds of supporters gathered for prayers marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan came just weeks after passage of a nonbinding Senate resolution calling for a devolution of power to three self-governing regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Iraqi politicians responded angrily to the resolution, which was sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and candidate for president. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, called the measure an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Others accused officials in Washington of plotting to partition Iraq.
But the idea of building strong regions has the support of Kurdish leaders, including President Jalal Talabani, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the two largest Shiite formations, led by Hakim's father, Abdelaziz Hakim.
The Kurds have a self-governing state in the north, which they hope to expand by annexing the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas. Abdelaziz Hakim has called for uniting the nine provinces in the south with a Shiite majority into a similar region.
"I call on this holy day for the people of my country to form the [self-governing] regions, starting with the region south of Baghdad," Hakim's son said in a sermon delivered in Baghdad. "It is an Iraqi interest, wish and decision."
But he also stressed the need to preserve Iraqi unity and said federalism was the best way to achieve this.
The principle of federalism is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, but politicians have yet to agree on a bill outlining the relationship between central and provincial authorities, one of the benchmarks for continued U.S. support.
Sunni political leaders are among the strongest opponents because they fear that the largely barren western area where they dominate would be shut out from the oil wealth in the north and south.
Abdelaziz Hakim's main Shiite rival, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also advocates a strong central government. The two leaders signed a cease-fire Oct. 6 aimed at ending gunfights between their allied militias that had raised fears of a new front in the Iraq war.
Ammar Hakim has taken the helm of his party since his father's diagnosis of cancer in May. The elder Hakim attended yesterday's sermon, greeting well-wishers at his first public appearance since returning this week from Iran, where he went for treatment.
Abdelaziz Hakim has cultivated close ties with the United States and Iran, despite the rivalry between them. His son urged further talks between the two countries, whose envoys have met twice this year to discuss Iraq's security.
U.S. officials accuse Iran of arming and financing Shiite militants who have attacked their forces in Iraq. Officials in Tehran, the Iranian capital, deny the allegations and charge that the continued U.S. presence is fueling the violence in Iraq.
Violence was relatively muted yesterday, as Iraq's Shiite majority joined Sunnis in celebrating the end of Ramadan by visiting relatives and picnicking at a popular Baghdad park.
Police reported the deaths of at least 14 people in shootings and clashes in Babil, a province south of Baghdad where rival tribes and militias are competing for influence. Three more bodies were recovered in Baghdad, apparent victims of sectarian killings.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.