By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Secession by any group in Iraq will lead to bloodshed, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Thursday.
Maliki did not refer directly to speaker of parliament Osama al-Nujaifi but appeared to be responding to comments by the senior Sunni politician, who recently said minority Sunnis could consider seceding if the central government did not treat them more fairly.
Maliki said the Iraqi constitution, written following the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, allowed provinces a certain amount of autonomy but did not permit secession.
"Whether you want to form an (autonomous region) or to separate, I say show mercy to the Iraqi people and the unity of Iraq," Maliki said in a speech to tribal leaders.
"Because if it (secession) happens, people will fight each other and blood will reach to the knee."
Increasing political tensions could hamper Iraq's fractious governing coalition as it tries to stabilize the country after years of war and decide whether to ask U.S. troops to stay beyond an end-year deadline for their withdrawal.
Nujaifi said in an interview with al-Hurra television last month that Sunnis were frustrated and felt like second-class citizens instead of "real partners in power."
He said the issue should be "treated wisely and quickly before things develop to reach the (point where Sunnis are) thinking of a kind of separation to guarantee rights."
Nujaifi later said he was only trying to describe a situation rather than calling for secession. But his comments were widely criticized, particularly by members of his own political bloc.
Nujaifi is a senior leader of the Iraqiya bloc headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Iraqiya won the greatest number of seats in parliament in a March 2010 election but failed to forge a governing majority.
Maliki formed a Shi'ite-led government last December that includes Sunni-backed Iraqiya. Allawi has accused Maliki of reneging on the power-sharing agreement.
Many Sunnis, who dominated Iraq during Saddam's 24-year rule, felt politically marginalized as majority Shi'ites rose to power after the invasion.
"No one is marginalized in Iraq at the current time. There is no marginalization at all in Iraq," Maliki said.
"Our problem in this country is that we do not consider each other as partners. Let's do that, and the problem will be ended. Not accepting others as partners intensifies the situation and threatens the unity of Iraq," he said.
(Reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; editing by Robert Woodward)