Kurdish leaders have requested that the new Iraqi constitution guarantee the Kurdish minority the right to vote on independence in eight years, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee said Friday.
The call for a referendum on secession from Iraq is the Kurds' most overt push toward independence since the fall of president Saddam Hussein.
Saadi Barzanchani, a Kurdish member of the national committee drafting the constitution, said Kurds would probably vote to remain part of Iraq if the country became the democracy that Iraqi and U.S. leaders have promised. "Eight years will be sufficient time to see," he said in an interview.
Barzanchani said Kurdistan's regional parliament made the decision to push for a guaranteed right to vote in the new constitution, which the committee is trying to piece together by Aug. 15.
Many Sunni Arabs, a minority group that had ruled the country for eight decades, oppose Kurdish independence and a drive for autonomy by some Shiite Arabs in the southern part of the country. Shiites make up the majority of Iraq's population.
"Iraq is a united country. I call on patriots to stand against this brutal campaign and insist that Iraq should be one country, one land and one rule," Mahmoud Sumaidaie, a Sunni cleric, said in a sermon during Friday prayers at a mosque in Baghdad. "We don't want the separation. Iraq will be the homeland of the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other minorities."
Countries that border Iraq have long opposed statehood for the estimated 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds, who represent a fraction of the approximately 20 million Kurds living in a region that stretches from Turkey through the former Soviet Union to Iran. Iraq's neighbors fear that allowing independence for Iraqi Kurds would fuel separatist drives in their own countries.
U.S. officials have consistently opposed the secession hopes of their Iraqi Kurdish allies, saying a landlocked Kurdistan, surrounded by hostile neighbors, would not be viable.
Barzanchani said secession was "the legitimate right of each part of Iraq." He argued that granting all regions the right to break away if the central government neglected them was "one of the strongest guarantees of unity" for Iraq.
Kurds make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population. In the 1980s, Hussein unleashed a campaign of violence against the Kurds that killed more than 100,000 in northern Iraq, according to international human rights groups. Hussein also crushed a Kurdish revolt following the Persian Gulf War. U.S. forces later enforced a no-fly zone that gave Kurds enough protection to declare autonomy.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has said he wants the Kurdish region to remain part of Iraq. But separatist sentiment pervades his homeland.
More than 90 percent of voters questioned in Kurdistan during January's national elections said they wanted independence, according to a frequently cited survey conducted at polling places.
The debate over how much autonomy to give Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south, and Sunnis in the center and west of the country has become one of the most difficult issues to be settled before Iraq can draft a constitution.
Kurdish leaders have been audacious in pushing their claims. This week, they unveiled a map -- which they wanted appended to the new constitution -- that lays claim to hundreds of miles of territory extending south of Baghdad. The territory includes the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Another Kurdish official, Mullah Bakhtiyar, later told the Associated Press that the extended boundary was a "red line" for Kurds and that they were committed to it.
A Western diplomat on Friday urged members of the constitutional committee to maintain "flexibility and realism."
The diplomat, speaking to reporters in Baghdad under the agreement that he not be named, also appealed to the constitution's framers to stick to the Aug. 15 deadline for having a draft constitution approved by the National Assembly. The charter would then go before Iraqi voters.
"You kick this down the road six months, it's going to look like the whole process is blocked," the diplomat said.
The diplomat also said a draft he saw Friday had removed a stipulation that family matters such as divorce and inheritance be governed by the laws of an individual's religious sect. Some Iraqis had feared that religious law under the rule could be used to limit the rights of women. The official stressed, however, that the wording of the constitution was changing daily.
Work on the constitution continues despite the walkout of more than a dozen Sunni Arabs after the assassination Tuesday of a fellow Sunni member of the committee.
In attacks Friday, a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine west of Baghdad, and news agencies reported that gunmen wounded an Iraqi army captain and killed his 23-year-old wife. The couple had been married one day.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.