Waving posters of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, thousands of chanting Shiite Muslims signaled approval for a call Thursday by their leaders for a separate Shiite federal state in central and southern Iraq.
The demand by one of the government's dominant Shiite religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, came five days before a draft of Iraq's new constitution is due. The call, which triggered immediate protests by Sunni Muslim leaders and some Shiite officials, capped increasingly assertive moves by the party to influence the new Iraq as it takes shape.
"What have we gotten from the central government but death?" Hadi Amiri, leader of an Iranian-trained Shiite militia that is the party's private security contractor, demanded at a rally attended by thousands at a stadium here in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
"We must not miss this chance," said the party's leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, dressed in robes and turban. Hakim described "one federal state in central and southern Iraq, an area of shared bonds and one social fabric."
An Iranian-influenced Shiite state in the south would be contrary to what U.S. leaders hoped for when they invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad on Wednesday identified relations with Iran as the biggest long-term challenge facing Iraq's central government.
In Baghdad on Thursday, political leaders representing Shiites, Sunnis, ethnic Kurds, secular Iraqis and other interests wrestled again over the issue of federalism and other disputes blocking the completion of a draft constitution. The draft is due Monday.
Under the interim constitution now governing Iraq, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's government and the parliament must dissolve if Monday's deadline is missed. Elections would then be held to elect a new parliament that would take another try at drafting the charter.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders have warned that instability and political violence -- including attacks by an insurgency composed of Iraqi and foreign Sunnis that has claimed thousands of lives since Jafari's government took power April 28 -- will likely increase if politicians miss Monday's deadline.
U.S. officials have pushed Iraqis to build up their government and security forces quickly so that the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq can withdraw as soon as possible. While keeping up the pressure, U.S. officials have sounded much less hopeful about the constitution deadline in recent days.
Some Iraqi leaders say they believe time is too short to settle the disputes blocking the constitution. They have suggested a range of options, including passing a truncated charter that leaves the difficult issues for later, or changing the ground rules to allow Jafari's government to remain in power while the issues are debated.
Iraq's political blocs and constitution writers have largely agreed in principle to some kind of separate federal state for the Kurdish north. Kurds, historically persecuted by Iraq's dominant Arab population, have enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, originally under the protection of a no-fly zone set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and enforced by the U.S. and British militaries.
But Sunni Arabs, striving to preserve the centralized form of government they dominated for decades, have adamantly opposed a separate Shiite state. That would split Iraq and risk putting the oil-rich south under the influence of neighboring, Shiite-led Iran, Sunni opponents say.
"This was a shock," Salih Mutlak, the most vocal Sunni on the committee drafting Iraq's constitution, said Thursday after the Najaf rally. "You are giving Iraq to the Iranians."
"We hoped this day would never come," Mutlak separately told the Reuters news agency. "We believe that the Arabs, whether Sunni or Shiite, are one. We totally reject any attempt to stir up sectarian issues to divide Iraq."
The spokesman for Jafari, whose Shiite Dawa party is both government partner and political rival with the Supreme Council, also rejected Thursday's call. "The idea of a Shiite region is unacceptable to us," Laith Kubba told Reuters.
The Supreme Council has given few specific proposals on how federalism would work in the south. Backers have said one key goal is bringing southern oil fields under local control.
By including central Iraq, Hakim's and Amiri's demands went beyond a southern-based proposal to merge three provinces into a federal region. The proposed state, reaching from the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to Basra, the main southern city, would have a mostly Shiite population consisting of nearly half of Iraq's 26 million people.
In his remarks Thursday, Hakim stressed what he called the necessity of upholding Islamic law in Iraq.
The Supreme Council and its ministers in Iraq's government already have exerted their influence in recent weeks, banning alcohol sales at Baghdad's airport as un-Islamic. They also used the ex-militia forces to shut down much of Baghdad last week for a memorial for Hakim's brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim, who was killed by a car bomb two years ago.
Thursday's rally in Najaf was a continuance of the commemoration.
Supreme Council supporters clasped posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a cleric revered by Iraqi Shiites and one of the country's most influential figures. Mourners also held posters of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Khomeini and plastered their likenesses on walls around town.
Sistani and other prominent Shiite religious and political figures have not rallied to the idea of separate states under federalism. Moqtada Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric, told The Washington Post in a statement late last month that consideration of federalism should be put off for now. Sistani has urged a unified Iraq, although Jafari quoted him as saying in recent weeks that he was not opposed to federalism.
Separately Thursday, what have been daily political killings claimed the lives of three Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi military intelligence official and a worshiper going to prayers at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, as well as an interpreter working with U.S. forces in the northern city of Kirkuk. The U.S. military reported that a Marine was killed by a bomb near the western city of Ramadi.
Knickmeyer reported from Baghdad.