The country's biggest Shiite party is hoping for a big win in elections across the oil-rich south to jump-start its campaign for a self-ruled region — a move that would transform Iraq and, critics say, give Iran its biggest prize since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
To reach that goal, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council needs to win control of Najaf — which it wants as a future capital of an autonomous southern Iraq — when voters across the country choose members of ruling provincial councils Jan. 31.
But the Supreme Council faces strong opposition from other Shiite groups, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Those groups fear regional self-rule, modeled after the Kurdish autonomous area in the north, would weaken Iraq, open the door to expanded Iranian influence and threaten the existence of the Iraqi state.
Zoheir al-Hakim, a senior Supreme Council official in Najaf, predicted a comfortable win in this urban center of Shiite learning about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
"Creating a region in the south is our right by law and under the constitution," al-Hakim said. "Our loyal masses will take on anyone who tries to take this right away from us."
The council's campaign posters and banners outnumber the competition here in Najaf, dominating every available space in the heart of the city. The party has a hometown advantage — Najaf is home to the al-Hakims, a prominent family that has produced generations of top clerics and scholars and founders of the Supreme Council.
Najaf a must-win
Even so, the large number of candidates — about 1,100 running for 28 seats — makes it difficult for any single party to take power alone.
Al-Hakim and other Supreme Council officials say they will take concrete steps toward creating a self-ruled region after the election but that the timing would depend on how well they do in the balloting.
To transform a province to self-rule, one-third of the members of a provincial council must call for a referendum that requires the support of a simple majority of the voters.
The law also provides a second, more cumbersome method involving collecting two sets of signatures of registered voters in support of self-rule. Once enough signatures are collected, the paperwork goes to the prime minister who has two weeks to forward the proposal to the election commission, which in turn must schedule a referendum within three months.
Under the constitution, self-ruled regions enjoy significant powers. They can write their own constitutions, amend federal laws that conflict with local ones, open representative offices abroad and assume responsibility for internal security.
The Supreme Council hopes to establish a self-ruled region encompassing all nine provinces south of Baghdad, but officials say they would settle for less if they don't win everywhere.
Nevertheless, Najaf is a must-win, largely because of its prestige among the world's Shiite Muslims.
The city includes the most venerated Shiite shrine: the tomb of Imam Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the founding saint of the Shiite faith. The shrine and the Shiite seminaries draw pilgrims and students from throughout the Shiite world.
It's also the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric and a close ally of the Supreme Council.
With the self-ruled Kurdish region already in a bitter quarrel with al-Maliki over the extent of one another's powers, critics say another autonomous region in the south could lead to the breakup of Iraq along religious lines and open the door to domination by Shiite-led Iran.
The Supreme Council was founded in Iran in 1982 by Iraqi Shiites who fled Saddam's rule. Its armed wing fought alongside the Iranians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and its leaders returned home after the fall of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
Problem for U.S.?
The proposed region in southern Iraq poses a dilemma for the United States, which for years counted on the Supreme Council as a partner in Iraq despite its close ties to Iran. U.S. officials have also encouraged Iraqis to consider giving more power to their provinces to prevent the rise of a new strongman after Saddam's regime was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator, proposed in a 2006 article in The New York Times to set up Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni self-ruled regions to defuse sectarian violence sweeping the country then. The proposal gained traction when the U.S. Senate approved a nonbinding resolution endorsing the formula.
Al-Maliki, whom the U.S. has strongly supported, is a staunch opponent of decentralized government and has warned that the current constitution has weakened the power of the Iraqi state.
"We will be doomed without a strong state," al-Maliki warned last week.
In a sermon Friday in Baghdad, senior Supreme Council lawmaker Jalaluddin al-Saghir sharply criticized al-Maliki over his views, accusing the government of overstepping its authority and failing to implement constitutional provisions of transferring power to local administrations.
In a Friday sermon at Najaf's twin city of Kufa, the chief spokesman for al-Sadr's movement warned against what he said was a "serious project" to divide Iraq, arguing that a huge turnout in the Jan. 31 election could foil that plan.