Iraqi Council Clears Key Legislation on Provincial Elections

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 19 -- Iraq's three-member presidential council on Wednesday approved legislation that sets a time frame for provincial elections, a development that Iraqi lawmakers called an important step toward reconciling rival factions in the divided government.

The decision came two days after Vice President Cheney came to Baghdad urging Iraqi leaders to make more progress on political reconciliation. The council passed the measure after Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, withdrew his opposition. Under the legislation, Iraq would hold provincial elections by Oct. 1.

The law attempts to address concerns of Iraqis in predominantly Sunni provinces who feel they have been denied fair representation under the current group of local leaders. Kurdish areas, which have been governed largely independently, are excluded from the legislation's provisions.

In a statement, the presidential council said the measure would buttress Iraq's political system by extending power through federalism.

In addition to providing for elections, the bill lays out the authority of the provincial governments, such as in setting up local judiciary councils and clearing the way for officials to adopt provincial slogans.

The Iraqi parliament passed the measure in February as part of a package of laws, including a 2008 budget and limited amnesty for detainees. But approval by the council, the next step in the legislative process, was delayed by disagreements, notably over the timing of elections.

Safia al-Souhail, an independent in parliament, welcomed the action. "It's one of our priorities," she said. "We lived under a system where all powers were for the center."

Some legislators said the American vice president's visit had an effect. "Cheney came over and his message was to pass laws," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, also said last week that Iraqi leaders were not taking full advantage of a reduction in violence to make progress toward resolving their political differences.

In the United States on Wednesday, the war's fifth anniversary was marked by speeches and demonstrations. But in Iraq, where because of the time difference the war's starting date was a day later, March 20, public attention centered on the 6th-century birthday of the prophet Muhammad.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave a speech in the Abu Hanifa shrine in Adhamiyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. "We should invoke this occasion to inspire ourselves by this historical occasion to strengthen the ties of brotherhood, compassion and magnanimity between the various segments of the Iraqi people," Maliki said.

Outside the shrine, Sunnis celebrated more robustly than in past years since the invasion, according to participants. People lit firecrackers and candles, and some revelers chanted in praise of ousted president Saddam Hussein, one resident said. Shiite Muslims in Iraq typically commemorate the prophet's birthday on a different day.

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