Iraqis Fear Delays of Critical Provincial Elections

Iraq's provincial elections are slated for this fall. The results have the potential to dramatically shift the balance of power in several key places. That's leading to political problems and fears that the elections will be postponed.

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Election preparations are also underway in Iraq, amid continuing violence there. More than 30 people were killed yesterday - that includes three American soldiers and two interpreters. That brings to 13 the number of Americans killed in Iraq this week. The attacks took place in two areas: Mosul in the north and Anbar in the west.

Anbar is soon to be the first Sunni province to be handed over to full Iraqi security control. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the tensions and delays that are plaguing the election process.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's bustling at the Independent Election Commission. Workers with stacks of paper hurry to and fro. For the first time, this body will be in control of running a vote in Iraq. Voters in Iraq's 18 provinces will cast ballots for new local governments, and it's hoped that it will lead to a more even distribution of political power among Iraq's different ethnic and religious groups. It's one of the benchmarks for progress in Iraq set out by the Bush administration. The elections were slated to take place on October 1st. But as the commission's executive director Qassim al-Aboudi says, the voting will most likely be postponed.

Mr. QASSIM AL-ABOUDI (Executive Director, Iraq's Independent Election Commission): (Through translator) Any election in any part of the world operates with fixed dates. We are the only country in the world right now without an electoral calendar, which makes it very difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The problem is wrangling in Iraq's parliament. The issue of Kirkuk is the main sticking point. No one can agree how the voting will be handled in that oil-rich province, which the Kurds want to incorporate into their semi-autonomous region. Aboudi says the election date may be pushed back as far as December, and he says in English, he's not happy about it.

Mr. ABOUDI: Yes, it's very bad. It's very bad to postpone what is important to us, to know exactly when this election will be done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The election commission has managed to register over 500 parties and individuals all over the country who will be vying for power. Voter registration will begin in July. The election commission, though, is not the only party anxiously awaiting the announcement of a final date. These elections have the potential to dramatically shift the balance of power in several key places. In the Sunni province of Anbar, the members of the Awakening, tribal leaders who turned against al-Qaida and now cooperate with the Americans, are hoping to overthrow the Iraqi Islamic Party, a former fringe group that rose to political prominence because almost every other Sunni Party boycotted the vote in 2005. Sheikh Ali Hatem is one of the heads of the Anbar Salvation Council.

Mr. SHEIKH ALI HATEM (Anbar Salvation Council): (Through translator) We paid with our blood and sacrifice. How can we simply give all this to monkeys from the Islamic Party? This is unfair. We have money, power and authority, so we seek to change these old faces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hatem says that power must be redistributed, or else.

Mr. HATEM: (Through translator) The elections must go the right way, or frankly speaking, we will have a serious problem. We won't just give up and give the country to these ignorant thieves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The vote could also shift the balance of power among Shiite factions. Followers of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadar are hoping to make large gains in southern provinces, where many of the councils are dominated by rival Shiite Parties in the ruling coalition. And the Kurds are also facing challenges. In Mosul, because the Sunnis boycotted the vote last time, the provincial council is mostly Kurdish. This time they may lose control there. Political scientist from Baghdad University Nabil Salim says that the post election period could be difficult, too.

Professor NABIL SALIM (Political Scientist, Baghdad University): (Through translator) If those taking part in the process do not get the votes they believe they deserve, they won't accept election results. And this will create more problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week, there have been attacks in several contested areas. A bombing in a local council building in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadar's, happened just as an election for the new council leader was taking place. In the town of Karma in Anbar, a suicide bomber blew himself up in another local council building, killing a number of tribal leaders from the Awakening Movement. And in Mosul yesterday, a car bomb blew up next to the provincial governor, a Kurd. Officials believe it was an assassination attempt.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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