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Autonomy Referendum For Iraq's South Struck Down

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's Election Commission has said it had rejected a petition for a referendum on autonomy for Iraq's southern oil hub of Al-Basrah after supporters failed to get enough signatures.

Some politicians and inhabitants of Al-Basrah have demanded a referendum on whether the city and surrounding province might become a semi-autonomous region, similar to the status enjoyed by the Kurdish region in the north.

Their bid reflects discontent with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of failing to deliver basic services and prosperity.

According to the Iraqi Constitution, any of the country's 18 governorates can hold such a referendum if it can muster signatures from 10 percent of voters. But Hamdiyah al-Hussaini, an election commissioner, said backers had fallen short.

"There should be 10 percent of the registered voters in Al-Basrah Governorate but it did not reach that number so we could not go ahead with it," she said. She said she would announce the exact tally at a press conference set for January 21.

Many inhabitants of Al-Basrah, which produces three-quarters of Iraq's oil, see themselves as marginalized by successive Baghdad governments both before and since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Some aspire to the status of Kurdistan, the northern region that has enjoyed de facto autonomy since 1991 and has its own parliament and security forces, but gets a budget from Baghdad.

But the movement for autonomy for Al-Basrah has powerful opponents. Big parties in al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite coalition want a larger autonomous region that would cover the entire Shi'ite south of the country, and oppose separate autonomy for Al-Basrah. The prime minister himself favors a strong central state.

Autonomy campaigners accused al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite alliance of blocking their campaign in the media and the Election Commission. Sheikh Muhammad al-Zaidawi, a tribal leader behind the motion, said, "We have presented an appeal to the federal court and we plan to conduct big protests in Al-Basrah."