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.
The announcement came as it emerged that British troops will begin withdrawing from Iraq in March and will mostly be gone by June. Britain has about 4,000 troops in southern Iraq. It expects to begin withdrawing them after regional elections planned for next month, the Ministry of Defense said, confirming reports in British media.
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.
Jailed journalist freed
Elsewhere, a Kurdish freelance journalist imprisoned in northern Iraq for writing a story about homosexuality was pardoned and released on Wednesday.
Adel Hussein said he was pardoned on Sunday by Massoud Barzani, the president of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
Hussein, a medical doctor, was sentenced Nov. 24 to six months in prison and ordered to pay a $106 fine after he was convicted of violating a public decency law for an article he wrote about the physical effects of homosexuality.
"I am a doctor and a specialist as well as a journalist. I was not supposed to be put in prison. It was too much to endure," Hussein told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Hussein, who is married with two children, said he wrote the article to educate readers, not to advocate homosexuality.