NAJAF, Iraq - About 600 leaders from central Iraq's Shiite Muslim provinces announced plans to begin setting up their own autonomous region, following a meeting on Monday in the holy city of Najaf.
Representatives agreed to set up a security committee for their five provinces and a regional council to stimulate the economy of their neglected region.
Iraq's provisional constitution recognises the federal nature of Iraq, most of whose Kurdish population lives in three northern provinces with a large degree of autonomy.
Participants of the Najaf meeting underlined the importance of holding elections on January 30, and backed Shiite leaders' rejection of largely Sunni calls to delay the vote.
Shiites make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population but were oppressed under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, which favoured the minority Sunnis.
The meeting opened with an appeal from the governor of Najaf province, Adnan al-Zorfi, for a regional gathering of presidents of provincial capitals with an executive council made up of governors and provincial administration leaders.
He also called for a consultative council with greater powers than the existing provincial councils that would draw up unified political, economic and security policies.
"We must turn ourselves into a regional unit in the context of a federal Iraq," said Ukail al-Khozai, deputy governor of Karbala, another Shiite holy city.
The congress involves the provinces of Babel, Qadissiyah and Muthanna as well as Najaf and Karbala.
The idea of forming a Shiite autonomous region has been floated for months, but this was the first time that the region's leaders met to draw up concrete measures.