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.
In conversations in recent days, several Iraqis expressed some optimism that after five years of war, security was improving and salaries were increasing. But they also cited worry about the divided government and the lack of electricity, fuel and job opportunities.
"For five years now we have been living a long night, but we still hope the sun will rise again on Iraq," said Omar Waleed, 45, post office worker in Samarra, north of Baghdad. "We hope the presence of American forces will continue, not because they have achieved anything, but if they left, we shall find ourselves face to face with the Iranian giant, which wants to purge Iraq of its Arab citizens."
Husenain Abdul Zahra, 27, a local government employee in the southern city of Najaf, said life is "better than before."
"The salaries are much more and we can buy everything we need. Today we are better off than yesterday, and next year will be even better," he said.
But many Iraqis still express deep resentment toward the U.S. government for the past five violent years. "I want the United States to take us back to the days of Saddam Hussein, so we can have peace and security," said Nusayef Jassem, 62, a retired engineer from Samarra.
Despite recent improvements in security, high-profile acts of violence continued Wednesday in various parts of the country.
In an early morning attack in the eastern province of Diyala, a woman wearing an explosive vest blew herself up near a local market in Balad Ruz, killing five people and wounding 15, including two policemen, according to a military spokesman.
U.S. forces raided an area in Buhriz, south of Baqubah, Diyala's capital, capturing three Iraqis suspected of being part of a bomb-making cell, according to Maj. Mike Garcia, a U.S. military spokesman in Diyala.
In the northern city of Mosul, an Iraqi general said a suicide attacker detonated a vehicle carrying explosives near the headquarters of an Iraqi army company. Fourteen people were injured, including 11 Iraqi soldiers, the general said.
In Kirkuk, also in the north, two policemen were killed and three others were hurt when a roadside bomb detonated in the downtown area.
Interior Ministry officials reported that a roadside bomb in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killed two men and wounded four. A second roadside bomb in the city killed two policemen and wounded 12 others.
Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Baghdad and special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Naseer Nouri and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Mohanned Saif Aldin in Samarra and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.