Iraqis set provincial elections, agree on detainee amnesty

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament, spurred by a threat from its speaker that it would be dissolved, on Wednesday passed a budget and approved two major bills that are considered crucial for national reconciliation.

Lawmakers hailed the actions as the first time that rival political blocs had made significant concessions to pass legislation. They came on the last day before a five-week break.

"After very hard discussions, we bridged the gaps between the blocs," said Hassan al Sneid, a Shiite Muslim lawmaker. "These are strategically important laws. It will affect Iraq's economic, security and political situations."

The major winners are Sunni Muslims — who won a limited amnesty for prisoners and an Oct. 1 date for provincial elections — and Kurds, who won a budget that allocated 17 percent of Iraq's funds to them, instead of 13 percent as the Shiite-led government had proposed.

Shiite legislators groused about having to give the Kurds more money than they thought they deserved. But Khalid al Atiya, the parliament's deputy speaker, promised that a new census to be taken later this year would clarify what percentage of Iraq's population lived where and would prevent further disputes.

"We are happy with this," said Fouad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani. "The Kurdish alliance and Baghdad are talking every day, and this is the result."

Legislators from the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc, expressed satisfaction over approval of the amnesty bill, which the Sunnis had demanded as a condition for returning their ministers to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Cabinet.

Sunnis say that most of the tens of thousands of prisoners whom Iraqi authorities are holding are innocent Sunnis who were seized in indiscriminate sweeps for insurgents.

Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni lawmaker, called the amnesty bill a major step toward reconciliation.

"All those who were betting on the isolation and the futility and insincerity of this have been proved wrong today," Sattar said. "Today was like a holiday for the Iraqi parliament. . . . We consider the general amnesty to be the biggest feat, and to have negotiated it a great success."

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest party in the Iraqi Accordance Front, celebrated the achievement on its local television channel. One man told McClatchy that his Sunni friends in prison had bribed guards to let them call to check whether the news were true.

Setting a date for provincial elections was the second of 18 so-called benchmarks that the Bush administration and Congress have said are vital to Iraqi progress toward national reconciliation.

The Kurdish alliance and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest Shiite political party, had been reluctant to set a date, but the Sunnis and legislators loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr favored it. The Kurds went along after the Sadrists agreed to approve a larger share of the budget for the Kurds. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, isolated, then fell in line.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker congratulated the lawmakers on the vote.

"These are difficult issues. They required a lot of effort, a lot of compromise, but they are important steps forward," he said.

Also on Wednesday, Sadr followers in Basra said an Iraqi interpreter for CBS News had been released but that a Western journalist who'd been seized with him remained in captivity. The pair was kidnapped earlier this week. Agreements were in place to release the second person, the Sadr office said. CBS couldn't confirm the report.

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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