BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s election commission will run a petition drive to see if there’s enough support for a referendum to decide whether the oil-rich province of Basra will become a self-ruled region, officials said Wednesday.
The Iraqi election commission said it would set up 34 centers across Basra where voters can sign the petition asking for a self-rule referendum. The drive begins on Monday and will last until Jan. 14, commission officials said.
Basra lawmaker Wail Abdul-Latif said that at least 10 percent of registered voters must sign the petition in order for a referendum to be scheduled.
If a majority voted in favor in the referendum, Basra would become a self-ruled region with the same powers as the Kurdish self-ruled area in the north. That would give local authorities more control of the province’s vast oil wealth.
The issue of self-rule in the heavily Shiite south has divided Iraqi politicians, including the Shiite coalition that has dominated political life in this country since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.
The biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, strongly supports Shiite autonomy in the south.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party opposes it, along with the movement of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Fadhila, a Shiite party with a strong base in Basra. Self-rule is expected to become a major issue in regional elections, set for Jan. 31.
Al-Maliki has complained that guarantees of self-rule in the Iraqi constitution have weakened the central government. Those complaints have strained relations between the Shiite prime minister and his Kurdish allies, who have been part of the ruling coalition since 2005.
In a speech Wednesday in Karbala, al-Maliki alluded to the controversy, saying the country needed unity to ensure the security gains of the past year. “If some people think that the country could be prosperous without the unity of its people , they are living in an illusion,” al-Maliki said. “We should think in the mentality of citizenship and unity. Thus we will keep talking about national unity because it is the foundation to build the state.”