- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Under strong U.S. pressure, Iraq’s presidential council signed off yesterday on a measure paving the way for provincial elections by the fall, a major step toward easing sectarian rifts as the nation marks the fifth anniversary of the war.

The decision by the council, made up of the country’s president and two vice presidents, lays the groundwork for voters to choose new leaders of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The elections open the door to greater Sunni representation in regional administrations.

Many Sunnis boycotted the last election for provincial officials in January 2005, enabling Shi’ites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power at the expense of the Sunnis — even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.

The decision by the council came two days after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad to press Iraqi leaders to overcome their differences and to leverage a lull in violence to make progress in power-sharing deals to heal sectarian and ethnic divisions.

A spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc, Saleem Abdullah, said Mr. Cheney pushed hard for progress on the provincial elections as well as a long-stalled measure to share the country’s oil wealth.

Last month, Iraq’s parliament passed the bill calling for provincial elections by Oct. 1. But the presidential council blocked implementation after the Shi’ite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, raised objections to some of the provisions.

That outraged followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are eager for elections to take power away from Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s party in the vast, oil-rich Shi’ite heartland of southern Iraq. Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters suspected their Shi’ite rivals were trying to delay the vote to maintain power.

Although many details must still be worked out before a vote can be scheduled, the council’s decision yesterday makes it likely a vote can occur later this year.

“This is a good, positive step to enhance national unity and defuse the political tension,” said Nasser al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker and presidential council spokesman.

The difficulty in arranging for provincial balloting underscored the immense challenges involved in trying to distribute power among Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In a statement marking the fifth anniversary, President Jalal Talabani hailed the fall of Saddam’s regime but warned that “the march that started five years ago will not succeed” unless Iraqis achieve “real reconciliation among our people.”

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