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Iraqi Council Rejects Provincial Elections

Iraq's presidential council rejected a measure Wednesday setting up provincial elections, sending it back to parliament in the latest setback to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.

The three-member panel, however, approved the 2008 budget and another law that provides limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody. Those laws will take effect once they are published in the Justice Ministry gazette.

The three laws were approved as a package by the Iraqi parliament on Feb. 13, drawing praise from the Bush administration, which had sought passage of a provincial powers law as one of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority.

"No agreement has been reached in the Presidency Council to approve the provincial elections draft law and that it has been sent back to the parliament to reconsider the rejected articles," the presidential council said in a statement.

The panel is composed of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

Abdul-Mahdi, a senior official in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shiite party, apparently objected to the measure and was supported by the Kurds.

The sticking point was control of the provincial governor's offices. A provision in the measure allows the Iraqi prime minister to fire a provincial governor, but Abdul-Mahdi's bloc wants that power to rest with the provincial councils, or legislatures, where his party has a strong base of support around the country.

In other developments:

  • In an about-face, Senate Republicans on Tuesday agreed with Democrats to advance an anti-war bill because they said the debate would give them time to hail progress in Iraq. The change of heart came after months of blocking similar measures. But unlike most of last year, security conditions in Iraq have improved, and Republicans say they now feel they have the upper hand on the debate.
  • Violence Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul highlighted the slow-going, punch-counterpunch U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq, more than a month after Iraq's prime minister said he expected the fight for Mosul would be a "decisive battle." Insurgents targeted passenger buses as a suicide bomber killed at least eight people west of Mosul and gunmen seized 21 men traveling through Diyala province.
  • An Arab TV news network broadcast a portion of a video Tuesday showing a British hostage seized in Iraq last May. The station said the kidnappers were demanding that Britain free nine Iraqi prisoners. The hostage, who has been identified as Peter Moore, was kidnapped by heavily armed men in police uniforms in May 2007 from the Iraqi Finance Ministry, together with four of his British security guards.
  • Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that he will tell Turkish leaders they need to wrap up their military operations in northern Iraq quickly, and that the ongoing assault must not last longer than a week or two. Gates, heads for Ankara Wednesday afternoon, also said he will call on Turkey to address some of the complaints of the Kurds, and move from combat to economic and political initiatives to solve the problems.

    Meanwhile, Turkish troops have killed 77 Kurdish rebels in the most intense fighting of a week-old ground incursion in northern Iraq, the military said Wednesday. Five soldiers were also killed in night-long clashes.

    Also, more than 40 military trucks ferried hundreds of commandos toward the Iraqi border in better weather, a day after heavy snow slowed down Turkey's offensive.

    F-16 warplanes were seen flying over the border town of Cukurca toward Iraq, while helicopters brought dozens of troops to a base on the outskirts of the town. Some helicopters also headed toward Iraq.

    The total death toll for the rebels since the operation began Feb. 21 reached 230, the military said. Two dozen soldiers and three pro-government village guards also have been killed.

    The rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, have disputed the military figures, saying only a few PKK fighters and more than 80 Turkish soldiers have died.

    It is the first confirmed Turkish military ground operation in Iraq in about a decade.

    The rebels are fighting for autonomy in the largely Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey, and have carried out attacks from northern Iraq. The conflict has killed up to 40,000 people since 1984. The U.S. and European Union consider the PKK to be a terrorist group.

    In Baghdad, a Turkish envoy said the aim of the incursion was "clear and limited" and said no timetable will be set "until the terrorist bases are eliminated."

    Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made the comments after meeting Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

    "We condemn the terrorists and the PKK, but we also condemn the violations of the sovereignty of Iraq at the same time and we have to be very clear on that," Zebari said. Iraq has demanded an immediate end to the cross-border operation.

    The military said warplanes have hit 225 targets, including anti-aircraft batteries, caves, shelters, training facilities, command and communication centers, while artillery units struck 475 similar targets.

    "There are sporadic clashes with terrorists that arrived as reinforcements to the region in two separate areas on the sixth day of the operation," the military said on its Web site.

    "There are signs that some high-level names of the organization might still be among terrorist groups in the (combat) zone," it said. In past operations, the military has monitored radio communications of rebels.

    The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq denied allegations by the Turkish military that wounded rebels were being treated in hospitals in the semiautonomous area.

    "We challenge anyone who says that PKK wounded fighters are receiving treatment in our hospitals," spokesman Jamal Abdullah said. "We have nothing to do with PKK fighters and routes to areas where clashes are taking place are closed."

    Turkey's military has said it had received information that some wounded rebels were being treated in hospitals in northern Iraq. Turkey has long suspected the Iraqi Kurd administration in the north of allowing the PKK to operate and ignoring calls for a crackdown on the group.

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