Iraq's parliament overwhelmingly approved a provincial elections law Wednesday, overcoming months of deadlock and giving a boost to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.
Also Wednesday, gunmen opened fire on a group of Iraqi policemen and members of a so-called awakening council northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 18, Iraqi officials said.
The head of the Diyala provincial council Ibrahim Bajilan said gunmen opened fire on a group of Iraqi policemen and members of a U.S.-allied Sunni group near Khan Bani Saad. He said 11 policemen and seven members of the so-called awakening council were killed.
Bogged down over Kirkuk
U.S. officials have complained privately that Iraqi politicians have failed to take advantage of the sharp drop in violence — down 80 percent since last year, according to the U.S. military — to forge lasting power-sharing agreements.
The legislation had been bogged down in a complex dispute between Arabs and Kurds over power sharing in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds seek to incorporate into their semiautonomous region.
Lawmakers acknowledged the delay in passing the measure would make it difficult for the electoral commission to organize the vote and pushed back the deadline for it to be held until Jan. 31, 2009.
The measure still needs to be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd who vetoed the last attempt by parliament to push through a measure despite a Kurdish walkout.
But Kurdish legislators agreed to the latest proposal, suggesting presidential approval was more likely.
U.N. compromise adopted
Agreement on the election law was reached after Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Turkomen lawmakers adopted a U.N. compromise to form a parliamentary committee to review disputes regarding Kirkuk separately so the elections could go ahead elsewhere.
The new law requires the committee to make recommendations for separate legislation on Kirkuk by March 2009. It also banned political parties from using religious authorities, mosques and government institutions as part of campaigning.
U.N. envoy Staffan di Mistura, who has shuttled relentlessly between the political blocs to pressure them to approve the law, told The Associated Press that preparations for the vote would begin immediately.
"Today is an important day for Iraq and democracy as the parliament found a compromise over election law," he said. "This will help Iraq and Iraqis to express their opinions by voting for their candidates in the provinces."
Parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, said the law's passage showed that Iraq's fractured ethnic and religious groups could work together.
"In the past, Kirkuk was the mother of all troubles, but today it has become the symbol of Iraqi unity," he said.
Essential to peace
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the elections are an essential step to building a long-term peace among the country's rival religious and ethnic communities.
Voters will choose provincial councils in 14 provinces, which wield considerable power at the local level.
Excluded from the legislation were the three provinces that comprise the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq since they're governed by the Kurdish parliament, as well as Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.
Many Sunnis and some Shiites boycotted the last provincial election, in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power.
The vote had been due to be held as early as Oct. 1, then the date was pushed to the end of December while U.N. and Iraqi officials have warned continued deadlock could force it to be postponed until next year.