BAGHDAD (AP) – The son and heir apparent of Iraq’s top Shiite politician came out strongly Saturday in favor of autonomy for Iraq’s religiously and ethnically divided regions, a potentially explosive issue on Iraq’s already highly polarized political landscape.

Ammar al-Hakim, who is being groomed to take over the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country’s largest Shiite party, has been a firm supporter of federalism from the outset.

But his unusually strident language appeared to signal growing impatience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inaction on key issues and his failure to bring fractured groups together.

Addressing hundreds of supporters at the party’s Baghdad headquarters, al-Hakim called on Iraqis to press ahead with the creation of self-rule regions, but cautioned that the country’s unity must be safeguarded.

“Federalism is one way to accomplish this goal,” he said.

He said Baghdad’s monopoly of power over decision-making and national wealth 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,” al-Hakim said.

The idea of breaking up Iraq into self-rule entities has gained traction in Washington after two lawmakers – 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.

Al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians denounced the decision as an infringement on Iraq’s sovereignty.

But President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and firm proponent of federalism, praised the resolution, saying it cemented Iraq’s unity and opposed its breakup.

Al-Hakim is the son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Supreme Council leader who was diagnosed with cancer in May and has been receiving chemotherapy treatment in Iran.

The younger al-Hakim delivered the remarks in a sermon commemorating the start of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr feast that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.

His father, the organization’s patriarch, greeted well-wishers at the ceremony but did not address the crowd.

The Supreme Council has been a staunch backer of federalism and wants the country’s mainly Shiite and oil-rich south become a self-rule region similar to that established 16 years ago by minority Kurds in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi constitution, adopted two years ago, provides for a federal system.

A year ago, parliament pushed through a law allowing the formation of federal regions but not for 18 months.

Al-Maliki has failed to achieve progress on the wanted legislation despite a major eight-month-old security drive in Baghdad and surrounding regions that was launched in part to give him the room he needs to make political compromises.

The joint U.S.-Iraqi operation has reduced the level of violence but failed to stem it altogether.

On Saturday, a spokesman said Iraqi forces clashed with suspected al-Qaida-linked insurgents during a four-day operation in a Sunni enclave in central Baghdad.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said 48 gunmen were killed in the fighting, in which Iraqi army soldiers were supported by local Sunni tribesmen and other civilians who have turned against al-Qaida in the volatile Fadhil neighborhood.

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