- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

Iraq might be forced to delay critical provincial elections until next year because of political disputes and technical hurdles, an Iraqi lawmaker said Thursday.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say the provincial elections, currently set for Oct. 1, are key to the process of national reconciliation by bringing disaffected Sunni voters into the political process and undermining popular support for insurgent groups and Shi’ite militias.

Fryad Rwandzi, a leading Iraqi Kurdish politician and a member of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, said during a Washington visit there are still “a lot of problems” establishing the electoral commissions that will administer the provincial vote and still no agreement on which voting system to use.

“We are keen to go forward with the election, as are all the political parties and governors,” Mr. Rwandzi said, speaking through an interpreter at a briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). “We think we can go forward with the election next year, maybe in February or March.”

Most Sunni parties boycotted the 2005 elections and are heavily underrepresented in a number of provincial governments. Rival Shi’ite parties, including the militias linked to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have jockeyed for power - sometimes violently - in Iraq’s south.

Reasons for the delay, Mr. Rwandzi said, include a lack of funding for the electoral commissions; the need to award contracts to foreign companies that will help set up the elections; the lack of reliable voter rolls and the problem of dealing with huge numbers of Iraqis driven from their homes; and uncertainty over how to guarantee levels of representation on the provincial governing councils for women and minorities mandated by the Iraqi constitution.

Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani insisted late last month that the elections would be held as scheduled, Oct. 1, but other Iraqi politicians now openly admit there could be some delays and that the voting might not all occur on a single day.

“We may not all be ready on October 1. It may be November 1 or December 1,” Omar Abdul Sattar of the Iraqi Islamic Party said at the USIP briefing.

Outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, told U.S. lawmakers last month in a little-noticed exchange that he thought Iraqi electoral officials would not meet the Oct. 1 target date.

“I do not believe that [the elections] will be in October,” the general said. “Probably November is the more accurate prediction. But there’s every intention to have elections in the fall.”

The push to organize elections comes as U.S. and Iraqi negotiators try to nail down a pair of agreements outlining the bilateral relationship and the status of U.S. troops operating in the country. A U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S.-led international force in Iraq runs out Dec. 31.

New U.S. proposals have failed to overcome Iraqi opposition to a proposed security pact, senior Iraqi lawmakers in Baghdad told the Associate Press on Thursday, and a senior government official expressed doubt an agreement could be reached before the U.S. presidential election in November.

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