updated 10/13/2007 1:00:50 PM ET 2007-10-13T17:00:50

The heir apparent of Iraq's top Shiite politician came out strongly in favor of giving more control to Iraq's religiously and ethnically divided regions on Saturday, telling supporters that central government control was "tyrannical."

The call by Ammar al-Hakim appeared to echo growing support among some in Washington to break Iraq into self-rule entities.

Al-Hakim, who is being groomed to replace his ailing father at the helm of Iraq's largest Shiite party, also called on Iraqis to work for the creation of self-rule regions across the country, but cautioned that national unity must be maintained.

"Federalism is one way to accomplish this goal," he told hundreds of supporters gathered at the party's headquarters in Baghdad's Jadriyah district to celebrate the start of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr feast that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Al-Hakim said Iraqis suffered from the concentration of decision-making and management of national wealth in Baghdad, arguing that such system had turned the central government into a "tyrannical and dominating" body.

"I call on the sons of our nation to create their (self-rule) regions," he said.

The idea of breaking up Iraq into self-rule entities has gained traction in Washington after two presidential hopefuls, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., proposed giving more control to ethnically and religiously divided regions.

A nonbinding resolution to that effect won Senate approval last month, but Republicans supported it only after the measure was amended to make clear that President Bush should press for a new federalized system only if the Iraqis wanted it.

No support from prime minister
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians denounced the decision as an infringement on Iraq's sovereignty.

Al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has been a firm supporter of federalism and makes no secret of its wish to see the country's mainly Shiite and oil-rich south become a self-rule region similar to one established 16 years ago by minority Kurds in northern Iraq.

But al-Hakim's unusually strong language Saturday appeared to signal his party's growing impatience over perceived delays in implementing a federal system of government provided for in the nation's constitution adopted two years ago. It also could have been an attempt by the young al-Hakim to show his strength on an issue held dear by his party.

The question of federalism, however, is a sensitive one in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs, for example, fear that it would lead to Iraq's breakup into a Shiite south and a Kurdish north, both with considerable oil wealth, while leaving them in a central region that's mostly desert and with scarce natural resources.

They also suspect that the creation of a self-rule southern region is part of a scheme by Shiite and non-Arab Iran to find a permanent foothold in Iraq.

Shiite political parties other than the Supreme Council are not as keen on federalism, with some totally opposed to it and others preferring a delay in its implementation on the grounds that it could deepen the country's security and sectarian woes.

Al-Hakim is the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was diagnosed with cancer in May following tests in a Texas hospital. He has recently returned home from neighboring Iran where he has been receiving chemotherapy treatment.

Open to U.S. dialogue
The sermon by the younger al-Hakim, who like his father wears clerical robes and a black turban, was part of prayers marking the start of Eid al-Fitr. The ailing al-Hakim, who sat in on the ceremony, greeted well-wishers but did not address the crowd.

In his sermon, the younger al-Hakim also called for more dialogue between the United States and Iran and appealed for unity among Iraqis and a faster build up of national security forces to take over responsibility for security from U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Al-Hakim's comments came a day after a former chief of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said the American mission in Iraq was a "nightmare with no end in sight" because of political and military misjudgments after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Hakim declared his opposition to the establishment of permanent foreign military bases in Iraq. "We are still on the march to achieve complete sovereignty of Iraq and this will be accomplished," he said.

Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has long played a delicate balancing act in the bitter rivalry between Washington and Tehran, putting off Iranian calls for a U.S. troop pullout while balking at U.S. pressure to take a tougher line against Tehran.

"We call for positive dialogue between America and Iran," said al-Hakim, whose party maintains close ties to Iran, where it was created in 1982.

U.S. and Iranian officials have held two rounds of formal talks this year over Iraq. The talks have been inconclusive and there has been no agreement to date on a third round.

The United States accuses Iran of arming Shiite militias and supplying them with sophisticated explosive devices used to attack U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran denies the charges.

Separately, the U.S. military confirmed that two American soldiers were killed Wednesday in a rocket attack earlier this week against Camp Victory, the sprawling headquarters for American forces in Iraq on Baghdad's western outskirts.

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