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After protests, Iraq PM urges early local vote

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The Associated Press
Monday, February 28, 2011; 10:12 AM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prime minister called for new provincial elections Monday following anti-government protests that killed 14 people last week in a demonstration of the simmering anger many Iraqis feel at a government they say fails to provide basic services.

Nouri al-Maliki told a news conference he would ask the parliament to pass a law allowing for the early elections for the councils that rule Iraq's 18 provinces and said the move was a response to the people's demands for change.

Elections for control of Iraq's provinces are held every four years. The last ones were held in 2009 and moving them forward would require parliamentary approval. The decision already has the support of the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, who said Sunday that he was also proposing such a move.

But its unclear whether there would be enough support within the parliament to hold the vote early and if so, how quickly a legislative body that took months to pass the last election law would act.

Having just secured a second term as prime minister, Al-Maliki is under intense pressure to show he's addressing the demands of a population angry with a lack of government services, a scarcity of jobs and rampant corruption.

Thousands of Iraqis protested in at least twelve cities on Friday, many in demonstrations that turned violent, as protesters clashed with authorities, set fire to government buildings and toppled concrete barriers.

Al-Maliki said the decision was taken at a Cabinet meeting Sunday "to discuss people's demands calling for reforms." He did not specify how quickly the provincial elections should be held.

Al-Maliki also called on parliament to dissolve many local city councils in towns and districts where members are appointed and not elected.

The prime minister also raised the specter that the upcoming Arab League summit slated to take place at the end of March in Baghdad for the first time in years could be delayed. But he said he was optimistic the summit would still be held and that the Arab League is insisting on holding it in Iraq.

He cautioned, however, that Arab League foreign ministers would meet later this week, and could decide to change the date.

"A decision might be taken" to delay the summit, al-Maliki said, adding that Iraq wouldn't object to a postponement of one or two months.

Before turmoil began rippling through the Middle East starting with the overthrow of the Tunisian government, the biggest concern over the Arab Summit was whether Baghdad would be safe enough for such a stream of high-profile visitors.

Alluding to the violence taking place in Libya and the problems sweeping almost every other Middle Eastern country, al-Maliki said Baghdad is safe to receive guests.

"We could say that Iraq is the one of the most secure countries at this current time," al-Maliki said.

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