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Thousands Demand Separate Region For Iraq's Al-Basrah

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) -- Thousands of protesters in Iraq's southern oil city of Al-Basrah have demanded their own federal region, akin to minority Kurds' peaceful, prosperous enclave in the country's north.

Some 3,000 people took to the streets in mainly Shi'ite Al-Basrah, demanding a referendum on whether the city and surrounding province might become a semi-autonomous state.

"Yes, yes for the Al-Basrah region," demonstrators shouted.

Ahmad Ali, a 27-year-old civil servant, said Al-Basrah wanted to "cut the cord with the central government, which has brought us only trouble, poverty and unemployment."

While the odds appeared long that such a bid could succeed, it reflects Iraqis' deep discontent with the government in Baghdad and highlights the power struggle unfolding in a nation that is home to a volatile mix of religions and ethnicities.

Even as security improves across Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'a, is criticized by many Iraqis for failing to deliver basic services and prosperity.

Some in Al-Basrah, which produces three-quarters of Iraq's oil, see themselves marginalised by successive Baghdad governments since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 and aspire to the same status as Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdistan, the northern region that has enjoyed de-facto autonomy since 1991, has its own parliament and security forces, but receives budget revenues from Baghdad.

Supporters of a referendum on Al-Basrah's fate complained they were getting short shrift from Iraq's Election Commission, which has been collecting signatures from among Al-Basrah's 1.4 million voters needed to hold such a referendum.

According to the Iraqi Constitution, any of its 18 provinces can hold such a referendum if it can muster signatures from 10 percent of voters.

Efforts to gather signatures began on December 14, after Wa'il Abd al-Latif, a parliament member from Al-Basrah, presented a petition calling for a referendum.

Residents can participate in the signature drive until January 14. Only 15,400 signatures have been collected so far.

Latif accused the Election Commission of improperly handling the signature drive. "It is not independent," he said.

Tensions are rising in Iraq's south as rival Shi'ite politicians vie for support ahead of provincial elections on January 31, Iraq's first elections in more than three years.

A feud is also simmering between Baghdad and Arbil, the Kurdish capital, over control of vast oil reserves.

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told tribal leaders in the largely Shi'ite holy city of Karbala on December 27 he would respect desires for power-sharing but resist separatism.

"We will not allow anyone to undermine the state or tear apart its unity," he said. "We need a strong state."

Some Shi'ite Islamists, including some in al-Maliki's own alliance, have called for an autonomous state covering the majority Shi'ite south. Al-Basrah politicians say their drive is unrelated, and claim support from Sunnis and Christians.

Basra has made a few failed bids for autonomy since it was an Ottoman province.