Parliament cleared the way Wednesday for provincial elections that could give Sunnis a stronger voice and institute vast changes in Iraq's power structure after the Oct. 1 vote.
The new law 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.
Passage of several pieces of benchmark legislation, along with a reduction in violence, were the primary goals of the U.S. troop increase that U.S. President George W. Bush ordered early last year.
At the time, Bush said he was sending 30,000 additional U.S. forces into Iraq to tamp down violence and give the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "breathing space" to move forward on healing the country's sectarian and ethnic rifts.
Violence has dropped significantly, but political progress has languished. 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.
Still pending and not likely to face positive action soon is a measure that would divide Iraq's oil wealth, one of the most vexing problems facing both parliament and the government.
Speaker breaks a tie vote
The Bush administration hailed the laws' passage.
"Many said that Iraq's communities couldn't relate to each other. Their grievances, their distrusts were so profound, they couldn't reach fundamental compromises. Well, we've never believed that that was a correct assessment," David Satterfield, senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in an interview with Associated Press radio.
Debate on the provincial election measure was raucous and ended in an 82-82 tie, broken by parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Tuesday night, he threatened to disband the legislature and call early elections because lawmakers had been unable to compromise or even maintain a quorum.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Cracker voiced pleasure that his labors — pushing and prodding Iraqi politicians — were showing results.
"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.
Elections law bundled with billions
The provincial elections and powers law was tied together with the $48 billion 2008 budget measure and another that grants limited amnesty to prisoners being held in Iraqi custody.
Kurds, who operate from a semiautonomous region in the north of the country, 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.
Post-Saddam spending had allocated 17 percent for the Kurds on the assumption that the figure matched their share of Iraq's total population. But there has not been a census in years, and some Shiite and Sunni politicians claimed Kurds should be cut back to about 14 percent as a more realistic reflection of their numbers.
After much haggling, the 2008 budget assured the Kurds of 17 percent but demands a new census before the year is out to dictate spending for the region in 2009 and beyond.
The Kurds insisted that their votes supporting the elections law and the amnesty be tied to the budget, as insurance they would get their piece of the spending pie.
The provincial law calls for new elections in all Iraq's provinces, except those in the Kurdish region, on Oct. 1. The newly elected councils will then elect an executive committee and appoint a governor, the top provincial official.
The law calls for the provinces to work with the United Nations on how the elections will operate and whether candidates will be selected by parties and voted on as a list or be listed on the ballot individually.
Most importantly, the measure would allow provinces to band together into regional governments that would begin making many decisions that now lie with the authorities in Baghdad.
It was widely expected, as well, that many of the United States' new Sunni allies in places like Anbar province — the so-called Awakening Councils — would hotly contest for seats this time around, after sitting out elections in 2005.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also was said to strongly back the measure because he saw it as a means of unseating rival politicians of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council who now have a lock on power in Shiite provinces in the oil-rich south of the country.
There were fears, however, that the potential for power changing hands so dramatically could set off new, violent confrontations that would pit Sunnis holding power with those aspiring to it. Likewise, both al-Sadr and SIIC, lead by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, both have powerful militias that already are frequently in bloody fights in the south. Several al-Hakim-backed governors have been assassinated.
Al-Maliki, the prime minister, was said to back the provincial election law because it was widely believed the al-Sadr faction would be the big winner in Shiite provinces, thereby reducing the power of al-Hakim, who is the Iraqi leader's main rival.
Parliament immediately adjourned for a five-week break after the contentious measures were passed. They still must be approved by Iraq's three-man presidency council.