BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s prime minister on Thursday welcomed the new opportunities offered by new provincial elections, which are viewed by many as critical to easing sectarian rifts that have divided the country.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking at a cultural festival in southern Iraq, said Iraqis should be careful to choose the right people to lead the country’s 18 provinces. His caution came a day after Iraq’s presidential council, under strong U.S. pressure, signed off on a measure paving the way for provincial elections this fall. The elections would open the door to greater Sunni representation in regional administrations as well rival Shiite factions. “Reconstruction and the building of services and culture cannot be achieved in the shadow of economic corruption, manipulation and the placement of dishonest people in sensitive places,” the Shiite leader said. “These things must be reviewed before the provincial elections.”
The measure approved Wednesday calls for a new local vote to be held by Oct. 1, although many details must still be worked out before the elections can be formally scheduled.
“Now we have enough time to think about who can serve the country and who cannot, who adopts the right thoughts and who adopts destructive thoughts,” al-Maliki said during his speech in Hillah, the predominantly Shiite capital of Babil province. “We have to express our will.”
Many Sunnis boycotted the last election for provincial officials in January 2005, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.
That helped fuel the Sunni-led insurgency and the wave of sectarian bloodletting that drove the country to the brink of civil war before U.S. President George W. Bush rushed nearly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq last year.
As a sign of the ongoing threat, a female suicide bomber on Wednesday detonated an explosives vest packed with ball bearings near a bus terminal in Balad Ruz northeast of Baghdad. The U.S. military said Thursday that five Iraqis were killed and 17 wounded, including two policemen.
Elsewhere in the volatile Diyala province, an Iraqi soldier was killed and another wounded after a booby-trapped door exploded as they were clearing a water treatment plant, the military said.
A suicide bomber driving a dump truck packed with 2,000 pounds (900 kilos) of explosives also struck Iraqi troops in the northwestern city of Mosul, killing a soldier and wounding 19 others, according to another military statement.
Last month, Iraq’s parliament passed the bill calling for provincial elections by Oct. 1. The presidential council, however, had blocked implementation after the Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, raised objections to some of the provisions.
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.
The approval of the measure came two days after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad to press Iraqi leaders to take advantage of a lull in violence 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 elections as well as a stalled measure to share the country’s oil wealth.
It also coincided with the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, a watermark date not lost on Iraq’s leaders. 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. A drop in attacks followed due to extra American troops, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq and a cease-fire by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. But political progress has been slow. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told CNN that security has improved in the year since Iraq was on the brink of civil war. But Petraeus added “progress is tenuous” and “there are innumerable challenges out there.”
“The situation is more secure for more Iraqis in more parts of Iraq than at any point really since late 2003,” said David Satterfield, the State Department’s top Iraq adviser.
“That does not mean that security is by any means assured or fully achieved for Iraqis or for U.S. and coalition forces,” Satterfield told the AP. “Al-Qaeda remains lethal. It remains determined to pursue its campaign of brutality and terror.”