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Iraqi council clears obstacle to provincial elections

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s presidential council dropped its objections Wednesday to a law that helps clear the way for provincial elections that are considered key to reconciling the country’s ethnic and religious factions.

The unexpected announcement by the council, made up of the country’s president and two vice presidents, follows intense lobbying by U.S. officials to make the power-sharing compromises needed to solidify a recent drop in violence.

U.S. patience with Iraq’s fractious politicians is wearing thin as the war enters its sixth year. But Wednesday’s decision offers American officials here a sign of progress, which they can use to make the case in Washington for time over the summer to assess the impact of U.S. troop withdrawals underway before pulling out more forces. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will make their recommendations to Congress next month.

The measure, which defines the relationship between the country’s 18 provinces and the central government, calls for elections by Oct. 1. Iraq’s parliament approved it Feb. 13 under a package deal that included a $48-billion national budget and an amnesty plan for some of the mostly Sunni Arab detainees languishing in custody.

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But the presidential council withheld its needed approval because of objections from Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a member of the main Shiite Muslim political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni, are the other council members.

The dispute centered on an article that would give the prime minister the authority to ask parliament to remove a provincial governor. Abdul Mahdi argued that the provision was unconstitutional and that the authority to dismiss governors should rest with the provincial councils that select them, an aide said.

Abdul Mahdi’s party, a strong proponent of decentralization, won control of most of the overwhelmingly Shiite south in the last provincial elections, in 2005. But the party faces a growing challenge from followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who helped put Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in office.

Sadr loyalists had accused Abdul Mahdi and his party of trying to delay the elections to hang on to power.

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The council, which must unanimously agree to any legislation before it becomes law, dropped its objections after receiving assurances that parliament would consider amendments to the law, said Nasir Ani, the panel’s chief of staff.

The measure now must be published in an official gazette, which is expected in the coming days.

Even with approval of the law, the political blocs need to agree on rules for the election.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the last elections, as did Sadr’s followers, handing a disproportionate share of local power to other factions representing the majority Shiites and to their Kurdish allies. The imbalance has been a source of mounting friction in ethnically and religiously mixed parts of the country, as well as in the Shiite south, where Sadr’s followers are pushing for more influence. U.S. officials have said that fresh elections are essential to stave off more violence.

The number of attacks dropped late last year after the U.S. military deployed 28,500 additional troops to Iraq, Sunni Muslim tribesmen rebelled against religious extremists in their areas, and Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to stand down.

But a string of recent suicide bombings has raised the civilian casualty toll as the added troops are being pulled out. Five combat brigades will be gone by the end of July, bringing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 140,000 from a peak of nearly 170,000.

Petraeus has said that he would like time to assess whether the security gains can withstand further withdrawals.

Underscoring the danger, a woman with explosives hidden under her black gown attacked a police convoy Wednesday, killing five people and injuring 11 northeast of Baghdad, police said. It was the ninth suicide attack carried out by a woman this year.

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The latest attack happened in a busy commercial district of Balad Ruz, a religiously mixed city in Diyala province. The woman stepped into the street as a convoy drove by ferrying a police captain to work, according to the provincial operations center. Two policemen were among those killed and four were injured, police said.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the death of a soldier Wednesday in a vehicle rollover in Diyala. At least 3,991 U.S. personnel have died since the American-led invasion in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

North of Diyala, U.S. forces accidentally killed three Iraqi policemen and injured a fourth on the road between Kirkuk and Hawija. Iraqi police, responding to a report of a possible car bomb, drove into an area where American troops were conducting operations, said Staff Sgt. Sam Smith, a spokesman for U.S. forces.

“Entering into a previously cordoned area at a high rate of speed, the Iraqi police received fire from a coalition force soldier who had perceived the vehicle as a threat,” Smith said in an e-mail. “The incident is currently under investigation.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.


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