Friday, February 15, 2008

more iraqi political benchmarks are now met...

Iraqi lawmakers pass 3 key new laws;_ylt=AvP.l4T2stbyqskZjeO5Q1VX6GMA By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer Wed Feb 13, 11:23 AM ET Iraq's parliament on Wednesday passed three key pieces of legislation that set a date for provincial elections, allot $48 billion for 2008 spending, and provide limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody. The three measures were bundled together for one vote to satisfy the demands of minority Kurds who feared they might be double-crossed on their stand that the budget allot 17 percent to their semiautonomous regional government in the north. The vote came a day after the Sunni speaker of the fragmented parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, threatened to disband the legislature, saying it was so riddled with distrust it appeared unable to adopt legislation. Following the session, which capped weeks of wrangling over the budget and other issues, the parliament began a five-week holiday. The draft law on provincial elections, which includes a detailed outline on devolving power to the provinces, initially had said voting would begin Oct. 1. Other details on that law and the amnesty were not immediately known. The measures still must be approved by the three-member presidency council. The Bush administration and Congress have sought passage of a provincial powers law as one of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority. It is only the second of the so-called benchmarks to make it through parliament. A measure that allows lower-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to reclaim government jobs became law earlier this year, but Sunnis have demanded amendments and the future of the measure is unclear. Other proposals, including divvying up the country's vast oil wealth and amending the constitution, also remain stalled. The disarray has threatened to undermine the purpose of last year's U.S. troop buildup — to bring down violence and allow the Iraqi government and parliament to focus on reconciliation. Violence is down dramatically, but political progress languishes. Still, the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker congratulated the lawmakers and said it was a victory for the Iraqi people. "These are difficult issues. They required a lot of effort, a lot of compromise, but they are important steps forward," he said at a news conference shortly after the vote. The last time Iraqis voted for local officials was January 2005, when nationwide elections ushered in representational government for the first time in modern history. But many Sunni Arabs boycotted the polls, giving Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Kurds the bulk of power. The U.S. hopes the new elections will empower the Sunni minority and blunt support for the insurgency. The passage of the laws came after weeks parliamentary infighting centered mainly on the Kurdish demand to maintain 17 percent of the budget despite calls by some Sunni and Shiite lawmakers to lower it to about 14 percent. Shiite lawmakers walked out of a rare night session Tuesday when the Kurds refused to drop their demand to lump the budget vote together with two other contested measures. The Kurds said they feared being double-crossed on the budget if parliamentarians voted on the laws separately and lawmakers decried what they called "a crisis of trust." The breakthrough apparently came when the lawmakers present approved an item in the budget that gave the Kurds 17 percent on condition that the government hold a census before the end of this year and reconsider the percentage accordingly for the 2009 budget, officials said. The Sadrist bloc, which holds 30 seats of the 275-member parliament, walked out in protest but returned during for the debate over the provincial elections law and the blanket vote. Underscoring the narrow victory, the provincial elections law passed only after the parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a member of the minority Sunni faction, raised his hand to break a tie after 82 lawmakers cast their votes in favor and 82 against.

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