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IRAQ SETS THE STAGE FOR NEW ELECTIONS

Parliament cleared the way Wednesday for provincial elections this year that could give Sunnis a stronger voice and usher in vast changes to Iraq's power structure.

The new law - which set the vote for Oct. 1 - is one of the most sweeping reforms pushed by the Bush administration and signals that Iraq's politicians finally, if grudgingly, may be ready for small steps toward reconciliation.

Violence has dropped significantly, but political progress languished until the logjam broke Wednesday by the narrowest of margins. Before the vote, the only significant measure to emerge from parliament had been a law that allows reinstatement to government jobs of some low-level members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party.

The outcome of the October elections is likely to reshape Iraq's political map.

Sunnis, who sat out in the 2005 elections, could claim a much stronger role in politics. Already, Sunnis have provided critical help in security by joining the U.S.-led battles against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents.

Among Iraq's majority Shiites, the election could be an important test of strength for rival factions fighting for control of oil-rich southern Iraq.

Debate on the provincial election measure was raucous and ended in an 82-82 tie, broken by Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni. Tuesday night, he threatened to disband the legislature and call early elections because lawmakers had been unable to compromise or even maintain a quorum.

The provincial elections and powers law was bundled together with the $48-billion 2008 budget and another measure that grants limited amnesty to prisoners being held in Iraqi custody.

Kurds, who operate from a semiautonomous region, insisted on the unusual legislative maneuver because they feared getting double-crossed on a deal that maintained their 17 percent share of the national budget.

The provincial law calls for new elections in all of Iraq's provinces, except those in the Kurdish region. The newly elected councils will then elect an executive committee and appoint a governor, the top provincial official.

Provinces will work with the United Nations on how to operate the elections and whether candidates will be selected by parties and voted on as a list or be on the ballot individually.

Most important, the measure would allow provinces to band together into regional bodies that would begin making many decisions that now rest with authorities in Baghdad.

FAST FACTS

Mukasey visits

Attorney General Michael Mukasey met Wednesday with the head of Iraq's judicial council during a quick trip to Baghdad to review U.S. efforts to help build the nation's legal system. He also met with key U.S. officials in Iraq, as well as soldiers and some of the more than 200 Justice Department officials working here in a "rule of law" mission. "My assessment is that the Iraqis are firmly committed to the notion of the rule of law as distinct from the rule of might, and are committed to the independence of the judiciary," Mukasey said.

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