Iraqi army prepares assault in Diyala as election law vetoed

BAGHDAD — Iraqi army troops headed Wednesday into Diyala, one of Iraq's last remaining restive provinces, in preparation for the next major government offensive, as Iraqi president Jalal Talabani vetoed a long-awaited elections bill, casting into doubt provincial elections widely viewed as critical for national reconciliation.

Troops are deploying in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, for a military operation against al Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups, Iraqi Gen. Abdulkarim Rubylee said Wednesday.

Similar operations over the past months in Basra, Sadr City in Baghdad and Amara restored much of the country to government control. Diyala remains one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq.

"This is to get rid of what remains of al Qaida and the insurgents," said Rubylee, commander of army operations. He didn't specify the number or location of troops for security reasons, but a reporter in Diyala saw Iraqi troops setting up tents in towns to the south, north and east of Baquba, the provincial capital. Coalition forces are deploying as well to provide support.

Some members of the Sunni Awakening, tribesmen paid by the United States to fight al Qaida Iraq, are fleeing. "They think the security plan will target them after the insurgents," Mulla Sh'hab Alsafi, leader of one local Awakening group, told McClatchy.

Diyala, home to Kurds, Arab Sunni and Shiites, is one of the most ethnically and religiously mixed provinces in Iraq. Rich in agriculture, it's likely to be hotly contested in the upcoming provincial elections, along with the northern provinces of Ninevah, Salahuddin and Kirkuk.

Those elections, which had been scheduled for October, could return control of some of the northern provinces to Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last round, held in 2005.

But the October date was thrown into doubt after Kurdish lawmakers walked out of the Iraqi parliament on Tuesday. At issue was power sharing in Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk, which sits on some of the largest oilfields in the country. The bill passed in their absence would reduce Kurdish representation on the provincial council and transfer security authority for the region from the Kurdish troops already there to Iraqi Army troops from outside the region.

Kurdish leaders condemned the bill as unconstitutional and claimed voting irregularities. On Wednesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, vetoed it, saying the bill was "against the principle of national accord," according to a statement released by his office.

Sunni and Shiite lawmakers say voting was fair. Osama al Nejifi, a Sunni independent from Mosul province, told McClatchy that the Kurds are simply stalling to avoid a loss of their influence in Mosul province. "I believe they work to delay the election," he said.

Kurds on the streets of Kirkuk were adamant in their opposition to the election law. "Without the Kurdish people, we can't talk about any shiny future for Iraq," said 32-year old Fa'iq Mohammed Qadir. "What happened in the parliament is like a coup against Kurds," said Aso Raheem Sarawi. "It is not constitutional and illegal."

The veto and court challenges likely to follow could delay voting until December or even into 2009. "There still is a chance for damage control," said Tania Talat, a lawmaker from the Kurdish PUK party. "We are still having meetings with different sides."

Parliament will debate the bill again Thursday and could override Talabani's veto. "We will vote and the law will pass with the absolute majority," Nejifi said.

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Special correspondents Sahar Issa, Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad, Yaseen Taha in Diyala province, and a reporter in Sulaimaniyah who can't be identified for security reasons, contributed to this article.)