- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s election authority proposed Sunday to delay important provincial balloting in an apparent sign of frustration over a political impasse that has stalled preparations for critical elections originally planned for this fall.

The provincial election plan - strongly backed by Washington - would shift more powers from Baghdad to the regions and is viewed by Sunni Arabs as path to gain more influence over decisions by the Shi’ite-dominated central government.

But any prolonged setbacks could slow momentum for giving Sunnis a greater voice in political and security affairs - considered essential to stabilize the country and maintain pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq and other militant factions.

Separately, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned in Washington that a fixed timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq could jeopardize recent political and economic progress.

Adm. Mullen said the agreement between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set a “general time horizon” for bringing more troops home from the war was a sign of “healthy negotiations for a burgeoning democracy.”

“I think the strategic goals of having time horizons are ones that we all seek because eventually we would like to see U.S. forces draw down and eventually all come home,” the Pentagon’s top military official told “Fox News Sunday.” “This right now doesn’t speak to either timelines or timetables, based on my understanding of where we are.”

U.S. military strategy for Iraq has been shaken by published comments last week from Mr. al-Maliki that he could support a 16-month timeline to withdraw U.S. troops proposed by Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama.

The provincial election plans remain snared in one of Iraq’s thorniest political dilemmas: the future of the oil-rich northern region of Kirkuk.

Iraq’s Kurds, who control a semiautonomous region in the north, have held up parliament passage of a law to allocate funds and set guidelines for the provincial elections, at the moment scheduled for Oct. 1.

They oppose a proposed equal distribution of provincial council seats in the Kirkuk region, which is outside the Kurdish territory but considered by many Kurds to be part of their historical homeland.

The Kurds also are pressing the government to hold a long-delayed referendum in Kirkuk on whether to residents want to join the Kurdish area.

The Election Commission, in a statement distributed to lawmakers and others, said there is no longer time to organize the elections on schedule “according to international standards.” It offered a possible new date of Dec. 22 for the voting in most areas of the country.

Any indefinite postponements would certainly bring outcry from the Iraq’s minority Sunnis, whose uprising against al Qaeda last year was considered critical in uprooting insurgent strongholds and helping in the sharp drop in violence around Iraq.

On Saturday, Iraq’s largest Sunni political bloc ended a nearly one-year boycott of the government after parliament approved six Sunni officials to take seats in the Cabinet.

Separately, in the country’s south, a new airport opened in Najaf in what the prime minister said was a key step in the reconstruction of a country devastated by war.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, mostly Iranians, travel to Iraq every year to visit Shi’ite shrines in Najaf and another holy city, Karbala. The new $250 million airport is expected to boost the numbers of religious tourists.

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