The prospect of a decentralized Iraq drove opposition groups for decades; Shiites and Kurds were brutally suppressed under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, and once they came to power they wanted to weaken the central government. In a referendum last year, a constitution including the option of devolution was approved despite nearly uniform Sunni opposition.
Under the constitution, any of Iraq's 18 provinces, or a group of provinces, may hold a referendum to form a federal region. But the charter was vague on the definition of "federal." In Kurdistan it in effect has meant grouping three provinces into an autonomous enclave that has its own military, intelligence apparatus, prime minister and oil ministry.
The Kurdish experiment has inspired many Shiite leaders, especially Hakim. Clerics loyal to him already have begun using street demonstrations as well as Friday sermons to advance to desperate and war-weary Shiite masses the idea that an autonomous southern region will stem the bloodshed and bring prosperity.
"Those afraid of federalism in the south and middle are afraid that we will get our rights back," Shiite cleric Sadruddin Qubanchi told the faithful gathered for Friday prayers in Najaf last month.
"Why not now?" said a July 30 column in Al Adala, a Shiite daily newspaper. "We are in a race against time to establish federalism in Iraq."
Hakim's advisors have already begun drawing up proposals for the rights and territorial boundaries of such a region, said Haithem Hussein, one of his deputies. In one plan, the Shiite militias now considered part of Iraq's cycle of violence could serve as a regional security force, just as the Kurdish \o7peshmerga \f7 militias form the core of Kurdistan's regional security forces.
"We don't want to establish a Shiite state or a state within a state," said Mukhlis Zamel, a Shiite lawmaker from the southern city of Nasiriya. "But we want to manage ourselves by ourselves."
In the halls of parliament, Sunni politicians say their Shiite colleagues try to strong-arm them to go along with their plan.
"They try to convince you that federalism is the only solution, whether you like it or not," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a former law professor now serving in parliament as a member of the main Sunni coalition.
Most agree that a partitioning of Iraq along the geographical lines advocated by Shiites would be an agonizing and traumatic process.
Almost all of Iraq's major tribes include both Shiite and Sunni branches, and cross-sectarian marriages abound.
Baghdad, Diyala, northern Babil and southern Salahuddin provinces are thoroughly mixed, often patchworks of Shiite and Sunni villages. Basra in the south includes a significant Sunni minority, while Mosul in the north includes significant numbers of Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.
But all of these complications can be worked out, said analyst Eland.
"They could work out an oil-sharing agreement," he said. "It's a fallacy that you have to have contiguous borders. You could have deterrence: We won't hurt your minority if you don't hurt ours."
Sheik Diyadhin Fayadh, a Shiite politician, offered another solution to the sectarian patchwork stemming from a partition: "If people don't like the system in one region," he said, "they can go to another region."
Times staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.