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Iraqi parliament sets provincial poll date

Iraqi parliament sets provincial poll date

By Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent

Published: February 14 2008 02:01 | Last updated: February 14 2008 02:01

Iraq’s parliament on Wednesday voted to set a date for provincial elections, which US and Iraqi politicians consider to be a key step in creating legitimate local governments that can reassert state authority in the country’s often anarchic provinces.

News agencies reported that an early draft of the law had set the date for the elections as October 1.

The parliament also passed a contentious $48bn budget and voted to provide limited amnesty to detainees before adjourning for a five-week break.

The legislative package however only passed by the narrowest margin, with parliamentarians voting 82 in favour, 82 against, and the Sunni Arab speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani passing the tie-breaking vote.

Iraq’s last provincial elections were held in January 2005, and were boycotted by most Sunni Arabs. The large radical Shia Sadrist movement only ran a small number of candidates. The result has been limited provincial governments in much of the country weakened further by the security situation.

In Sunni areas, provincial leaders have sometimes clashed with the newly formed US-allied Awakening movement – the collection of largely Sunni militia many of whom are former insurgents. While in Shia areas, Sadrist militia fight with police forces controlled by a rival Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).

Provincial elections may be particularly important in consolidating progress made by the US military and its newfound Sunni allies against al-Qaeda, strengthening the legitimacy of the Awakening forces and speeding their assimilation into the police.

However, some Iraqi politicians are sceptical that the vote can be held by the due date, as a key law regulating the process is yet to be passed, and groups that did well in the 2005 vote, like the SIIC, may have a vested interest in delaying or postponing any election.

“Implementation of this will not be so easy,” said independent Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman.

Iraq’s $48bn budget represents a large increase from last year’s $41bn. State revenues, which are almost entirely derived from oil exports, have steadily increased as world prices have risen.

But Iraqi officials have been criticised over their inability to spend the sums at their disposal, as their offices lack the technical and managerial expertise. US officials reported in September that ministries had spent no more than 24 per cent of their 2007 capital project budget as of July 15.

The debate in parliament was most notable for the bitter sectarian rift over the division of revenues that it exposed.

Sunni and Shia parliamentarians had earlier walked out of parliament to protest the earmarking of 17 per cent of state revenues for the northern Kurdistan region, or KRG. They claimed that the KRG – which wants control over the monies to decide how to spend them – should only get 14 per cent, based on estimates of its population from previous census’.

Some in the KRG argue that the census data is obsolete, and that the 17 per cent formula was established by prior agreement, in part to compensate the north to make up for neglect and destruction dating from the former regime of Saddam.

However, parliamentarians reportedly compromised on a measure that would grant the KRG the 17 per cent, so long as a census was held by the end of the year.

The laws must still be approved by the three-member presidential council.

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