BAGHDAD – Under strong U.S. pressure, Iraq’s presidential council signed off Wednesday on a measure paving the way for provincial elections by fall, a major step toward easing sectarian rifts as the nation marks the fifth anniversary of the war.
The decision by the council, made up of the country’s president and two vice presidents, lays the groundwork for voters to choose new leaders of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The elections open the door to greater Sunni representation in regional administrations.
Many Sunnis boycotted the last election for provincial officials in January 2005, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power at the expense of the Sunnis – even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.
That in turn helped fuel the Sunni-led insurgency that drove the country to the brink of civil war before President Bush rushed nearly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq last year.
The decision by the council came two days after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad to make progress in power-sharing deals to heal sectarian and ethnic divisions.
A spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc, Saleem Abdullah, said Cheney pushed hard for progress on the provincial elections as well as a long-stalled measure to share oil wealth.
Last month, parliament passed the bill calling for provincial elections by Oct. 1. But the presidential council blocked implementation after the Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, raised objections.
That outraged followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are eager for elections to take power away from Abdul-Mahdi’s party in the vast, oil-rich Shiite heartland of southern Iraq. Al-Sadr’s supporters believed their Shiite rivals were trying to delay the vote to hold on to power.
Although many details must still be worked out before a vote can be scheduled, the council’s decision Wednesday makes it likely that a vote can take place later this year.
“This is a good, positive step to enhance national unity and defuse the political tension,” said Nasser al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker and presidential council spokesman.
The difficulty in arranging for provincial balloting underscored the immense challenges involved in trying to distribute power among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
In a statement marking the fifth anniversary, President Jalal Talabani hailed the fall of Saddam’s regime but warned that “the march that started five years ago will not succeed” unless Iraqis can achieve “real reconciliation among our people.”
Power-sharing agreements were the goal of last year’s buildup of U.S. troops.