- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s electoral commission on Monday recommended a 45-day delay in parliamentary elections until Feb. 27, raising concerns that the postponed balloting could complicate the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and bring a possible surge of violence.

American commanders have noted the chance of increased pre-election bloodshed aimed at destabilizing the pro-Western government. A series of attacks struck around the country as officials tried to hammer out the election timetable, including an explosion outside a Baghdad elementary school that killed 10 people, including six children.

The recommendation for Feb. 27 voting was sent to Iraq’s presidential council, which still must approve it, said Qassim al-Aboudi, a senior electoral commission official. Though other dates remained on the table, there was little reason to believe the council would raise objections.

The delay from the original Jan. 16 date is needed to give authorities time to prepare after months of political stalemate that was finally broken with a dramatic vote by lawmakers Sunday just minutes before a midnight deadline on adopting new voting rules.

“The passage of the elections law proves we have entered a new stage based on respect and dialogue, and that the language of dialogue has prevailed over the language of violence and rift,” President Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish representative of the three-member presidential council, said Monday in a televised address.

At the center of the dispute were demands by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for a greater political voice for minority Sunni Arabs and changes in the distribution of seats in Iraq’s expanded 325-seat parliament.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Iraqi leaders and lawmakers for overcoming their differences to reach a compromise, new U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

“The secretary-general firmly believes that these elections will be an important step forward for Iraq’s political and democratic progress,” Nesirky said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Ban reaffirmed the U.N.’s commitment to provide technical assistance and support to Iran’s Independent High Electoral Commission, he said.

The secretary-general “encourages the Iraqi people and all political parties to participate in a process that will shape their country’s future and contribute to national reconciliation,” he said.

Ban reaffirmed the U.N.’s commitment to provide technical assistance and support to the electoral commission, Nesirky added.

There were concerns the delay could throw snags into withdrawal plans for the U.S. military, which is keeping the bulk of its 120,000 troops in place until the election.

The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, had ordered the bulk of the pullout to begin 60 days after January balloting. It was unclear whether Odierno has adjusted the order with elections now likely to be postponed.

Army Maj. Gen. John Johnson, a deputy commander in Iraq, did not give details of any pre-election contingencies to try to counter possible violence.

“With the elections law passed, our main concern continues to be the safety and security of the Iraqi people,” he said in a statement to Associated Press.

As the political deliberations have dragged on, insurgents have shown their capability of carrying out large-scale attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians.

The latest attack came outside an elementary school in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City, where police and witnesses gave conflicting information about whether the explosion was caused by a bomb, a rocket or an exploding weapons cache.

Among the at least nine people killed were six children between the ages of 6 and 12, said officials from the police and Interior Ministry. Thirty children were among the 52 wounded, two hospital officials said.

The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The blast occurred as the morning session of girls was leaving and boys were arriving for afternoon classes.

It partially toppled a brick wall in front of the school, leaving a crater that quickly filled with muddy water, apparently from a broken water line.

Inside at least one classroom, windows were blasted out and shards of glass were strewn over desks. Blood stained the wooden desks and books. Many backpacks were tossed about the room.

Elsewhere, gunmen stormed a checkpoint near Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, killing five members of an anti-al Qaeda group, police said. The men were members of the Sunni Awakening Council, ex-fighters who turned against the insurgent group and joined forces with the U.S.

Two more Awakening Council members died after eating poisoned food given to them while they were manning a checkpoint just west of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir, a police spokesman.

A roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded two others in southeastern Baghdad, and in the west of the capital, a bomb attached to a vehicle killed one civilian, police said.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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