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Iraq sets stage for new provincial elections in October; Washington applauds move

Iraq sets stage for new provincial elections in October; Washington applauds move

Parliament has cleared the way for provincial elections this year that could give Sunnis a stronger voice and usher in vast changes to Iraq's power structure.
The new law _ which set the vote for Oct. 1 _ is one of the most sweeping reforms pushed by the Bush administration and signals that Iraq's politicians finally, if grudgingly, may be ready for small steps toward reconciliation.
Passage of benchmark reforms on healing the country's sectarian and ethnic rifts _ along with a reduction in violence _ were the primary goals of the 30,000-strong U.S. troop increase that U.S. President George W. Bush ordered early last year.
Violence has dropped significantly, but political progress languished until the logjam broke Wednesday by the narrowest of margins. Before the vote, the only significant measure to emerge from parliament had been a law that allows reinstatement to government jobs of some low-level members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party.
The outcome of the October elections is likely to reshape Iraq's political map.
Sunnis, who sat out 2005 elections, could claim a much stronger role in Iraqi political affairs. Already, Sunnis have provided critical help in security by joining the U.S.-led battles against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents.
Among Iraq's majority Shiites, the election could be an important test of strength for rival factions fighting for control of oil-rich southern Iraq.
The Bush administration hailed the laws' passage.
"Many said that Iraq's communities couldn't relate to each other. Their grievances, their distrusts were so profound, they couldn't reach fundamental compromises. Well, we've never believed that that was a correct assessment," David Satterfield, senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in an interview with Associated Press Radio.
A joint statement in Baghdad by the U.S. Embassy and American forces "warmly" congratulated the Iraqis on the legislation and called it a "significant commitment to address important issues and find political bases on which to move forward."
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the legislation was "clearly a big deal, a big step."
Debate on the provincial election measure was raucous and ended in an 82-82 tie, broken by parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni. Tuesday night, he threatened to disband the legislature and call early elections because lawmakers had been unable to compromise or even maintain a quorum.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker voiced satisfaction that his labors _ pushing and prodding Iraqi politicians _ were showing results.
"These are difficult issues. They required a lot of effort, a lot of compromise, but they are important steps forward," he said at a news conference shortly after the vote.
The provincial elections and powers law was bundled together with the US$48 billion (euro33 billion) 2008 budget and another measure that grants limited amnesty to prisoners being held in Iraqi custody.
Kurds, who operate from a semiautonomous region in the north of the country, insisted on the unusual legislative maneuver because they feared getting double-crossed on a deal that maintained their 17 percent share of the national budget.
Post-Saddam spending had allocated 17 percent for the Kurds on the assumption that the figure matched their share of Iraq's total population. But there has not been a census in years, and some Shiite and Sunni politicians claimed Kurds should be cut back to about 14 percent as a more realistic reflection of their numbers.
After much haggling, the 2008 budget assured the Kurds of 17 percent but demands a new census before the year is out to direct spending in 2009 and beyond.
The provincial law calls for new elections in all Iraq's provinces, except those in the Kurdish region. The newly elected councils will then elect an executive committee and appoint a governor, the top provincial official.
The law calls for the provinces to work with the United Nations on how the elections will operate and whether candidates will be selected by parties and voted on as a list or be listed on the ballot individually.
Most important, the measure would allow provinces to band together into regional bodies that would begin making many decisions that now rest with the authorities in Baghdad.
It was widely expected, as well, that many of the Pentagon's new Sunni allies in places like Anbar province _ the so-called Awakening Councils _ would hotly contest for seats this time around, after snubbing elections in 2005.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also was said to strongly back the measure as a means of unseating rival politicians of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, who now have a lock on power in Shiite provinces.
Both al-Sadr and the Supreme Council, lead by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, both have powerful militias that already clash frequently. Several al-Hakim-backed governors have been assassinated.
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, was said to back the provincial election law because it was widely believed the al-Sadr faction would be the big winner in Shiite provinces _ reducing the power of al-Hakim, who is the Iraqi leader's main rival.
Parliament immediately adjourned for a five-week break after the contentious measures were passed. They still must be approved by Iraq's three-man presidency council.
But some important struggles remain for lawmakers. Still pending _ and not likely to be resolved soon _ is a measure that would divide Iraq's oil wealth, one of the most vexing problems facing both parliament and the government.
In the southern city of Basra, an Iraqi interpreter for CBS News was handed over to authorities Wednesday, but a British journalist working for the network remained in captivity, said Police Brig. Gen. Shamkhi Jassim.
Journalists saw the interpreter being escorted by police from the same hotel where he and the journalist were seized on Sunday.
The director of al-Sadr's office in Basra said negotiations were continuing for the journalist's release.
Kidnappings of Westerners and Iraqis _ for political motives or ransom _ were common in the past but have become infrequent recently with a decline in violence.


Updated : 2021-10-22 18:54 GMT+08:00