MOSCOW The leader of Russia's volatile Muslim Chechnya region Ramzan Kadyrov has called for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return as president in the 2012 elections and serve for life.
Widely seen as the key decision-maker in Russia, Putin, who was president from 2000-2008, has hinted he will either run for president in 2012 or support the protege he steered into the Kremlin two years ago, President Dmitry Medvedev.
"I want him (Putin) to be the president as long as he lives," Kadyrov told Newsweek magazine on Sunday, adding he wants his "idol" Putin to win the 2012 vote.
Kremlin-backed Kadyrov is the first leader of a Russian region to call for Putin's return to the presidency. Kadyrov's father and predecessor Akhmad, who was assassinated by rebels in 2004, was a close friend of Putin's.
A decade after Moscow drove separatists out of power in Chechnya in the second of two devastating wars, the region is relatively stable amid an Islamist insurgency across Russia's North Caucasus.
Kadyrov is widely credited by Russia's leaders for rebuilding Chechnya, although rights groups accuse him of heavy-handed tactics such as torture and abduction, charges he denies as attempts to blacken his name.
Analysts say the Kremlin allows Kadyrov to run Chechnya as a personal fiefdom in exchange for relative stability.
"As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything -- Allahu Akbar! (God is Greatest)," Kadyrov told Newsweek.
Rights activists also say he uses force to impose his vision of Islam in Chechnya, such as making women wear headscarves and restricting alcohol sales, which have led some to say he violates the Russian constitution.
"It is simple for a woman to get to paradise: she has to cover herself, her hair and her arms.... My dream is that all Chechen women should wear headscarves," Kadyrov said.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman)