- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s presidential council raised fresh objections yesterday to a new law setting up provincial elections, sending it back to parliament in the latest setback to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.

The three-member panel, however, approved the 2008 budget and another law that provides limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody. Those measures will take effect after they are formally published by the Justice Ministry.

The three laws were approved as a package by the Iraqi parliament on Feb. 13. The step drew praise from the Bush administration, which had sought passage of a provincial powers law as one of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation among Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority.

“No agreement has been reached in the Presidency Council to approve the provincial elections draft law and it has been sent back to the parliament to reconsider the rejected articles,” the council said in a statement.

The panel is composed of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi; and Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

The White House said it does not think the council’s move has dealt a fatal blow to the measure. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration would have liked the law to move forward without complications, but she added, “This is democracy at work.”

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, a senior official in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country’s largest Shi’ite party, objected to the measure and was supported by the Kurds, according to lawmakers who attended the council meeting, where the elections law was discussed. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The sticking point was control of the provincial governor’s offices. A provision in the measure allows the Iraqi prime minister to fire a provincial governor, but Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s bloc wants that power to rest with the provincial legislatures, where his party has a strong base of support across the country, the lawmakers said.

Naseer al-Ani, a spokesman for the presidential council, refused to say who objected to the measure.

“There are some items in this law that contradict the constitution, such as the governor and how to sack him,” he said. “There is an objection and it is constitutional. The Presidency Council has the right to object.”

The election bill was only the second of the U.S. benchmarks to make it through parliament.

A bill that allows lower-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party to reclaim government jobs became law earlier this year, but Sunnis have demanded amendments and the future of the measure is unclear.

Some Iraqi lawmakers vented their displeasure.

“This is a disappointment to us. We expected that all the three laws would be approved together,” said Khalid al-Attiya, the Shi’ite deputy parliament speaker.

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