Iraq parliament paves way for provincial elections
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA – 2 days ago
BAGHDAD (AP) — Under intense U.S. pressure, Iraq's parliament approved a law Wednesday paving the way for the first provincial elections in four years following months of deadlock that American commanders warned could jeopardize the dramatic decline in violence.
The breakthrough came after lawmakers decided to postpone a decision on how to resolve a power-sharing dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kirkuk controversy has stoked ethnic tensions in northern Iraq and stalled approval of the election bill.
U.S. officials hope the election, which must be held by Jan. 31 according to the new legislation, will give greater representation to minority Sunni Arabs. Many Sunnis and some Shiites boycotted the last provincial election, in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to win a disproportionate share of the seats.
Empowering Sunnis through a new election may reduce support for the waning insurgency — though not among extremist groups.
In the latest bloodshed, suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants ambushed and killed at least 22 Iraqi police commandos and U.S.-allied Sunni fighters in a village northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday. And in an audio message posted on militant Web sites, the purported leader of the al-Qaida front group the Islamic State in Iraq warned pro-government Sunnis that Shiites and U.S. forces will one day turn on them.
But the vote could also shift the balance of power among Shiite factions. Followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are hoping to make large gains in southern provinces, where many of the councils are dominated by rival Shiite parties in the ruling government coalition.
The 275-member Iraqi parliament had been heavily criticized for its inability to pass the law needed to establish the rules and guidelines for the vote. The election had been due as early as Oct. 1, then the date was pushed to the end of December.
U.S. officials have complained privately that Iraqi politicians have failed to take advantage of the sharp drop in violence — down 80 percent since last year, according to the U.S. military — to forge lasting power-sharing agreements.
The head of Iraq's electoral commission said the delay will make it difficult to meet the Jan. 31 deadline but that preparations were already under way.
"I think it will be very difficult to hold the elections this year, but we will try our best to ensure the elections occur before the end of January 2009," Faraj al-Haidari said.
President Bush congratulated the Iraqi parliament for passing the law and called the Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to praise their leadership, his office said.
"Nothing is more central to a functioning democracy than free and fair elections," Bush said in a statement. "Today's action demonstrates the ability of Iraq's leaders to work together for the good of the Iraqi people and represents further progress on political reconciliation."
U.N. envoy Staffan di Mistura, who has shuttled relentlessly between the political blocs to pressure them to approve the law, said preparations for the vote would begin immediately.
"Today is an important day for Iraq and democracy as the parliament found a compromise over election law," he said. "This will help Iraq and Iraqis to express their opinions by voting for their candidates in the provinces."
The legislation had been bogged down in a complex dispute among Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds over Kirkuk, which Kurds seek to incorporate into their semiautonomous region.
The measure still needs to be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who vetoed an election bill passed in February after Kurdish lawmakers walked out of parliament.
But Kurdish legislators agreed to the latest proposal, making its adoption more likely. All sides accepted a U.N. compromise to put off the vote in Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.
Instead, parliament will form a committee to review property disputes and power-sharing concerns and come up with separate legislation for elections there by March 31.
Kurdish legislator Khalid Shewani said the tipping point was an assurance that the committee would work according to the Iraqi constitution.
"Every side had fears but these fears have disappeared after the inclusion of legal guarantees," he said. "We thank God that we reached this agreement."
The new law also banned political parties from using religious authorities, mosques and government institutions as part of campaigning.
Another item specified that 25 percent of the council members must be women — the same quota constitutionally mandated for parliamentary elections, which were last held in December 2005 and drew more Sunni participation. But the thorny issue of how to ensure minorities such as Christians and Yazidis are fairly represented was to be addressed separately by the U.N. envoy.
Voters will choose councils in 14 provinces, which wield considerable power over local security forces and resources, including oil. Excluded from the legislation were the three provinces that make up the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq since they are governed by the Kurdish parliament, as well as Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.