SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq's three-member presidency council on Friday approved a long-delayed provincial election law, clearing the final hurdle for polls to go ahead early next year, an official present at the meeting told AFP.
"The presidency council has adopted the provincial election law," said the official, who is a member of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party.
Talabani and Vice Presidents Adel Abdel Mahdi and Tareq al-Hashemi were all present at the meeting, which was also attended by Massud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
The council's stamp of approval means Iraq can finally go ahead with the polls -- a key benchmark set by Washington for achieving national reconciliation -- which were originally scheduled for October 1.
The law is expected to empower the new provincial councils to press ahead with economic reconstruction.
Iraq's 275-member parliament passed the law on September 24 but, in a move that has drawn UN criticism, MPs scrapped a key clause that would have reserved seats on provincial councils for Christians and other minorities.
The presidency council called on lawmakers to reinstate the clause, the official said.
Elections will be held early next year in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The new law excludes the disputed northern oil province of Kirkuk and the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah.
During the passage of the law in parliament, MPs agreed to postpone the polls in Kirkuk. Elections there will not be held until after March 2009 and the existing multi-communal council will continue to administer the province.
A committee consisting of two representatives each from its Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen communities and one from the Christian community will work to prepare the groundwork for the organisation of elections in Kirkuk.
The province has been bitterly contested ever since Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab dominated regime poured in Arab settlers, both Sunni and Shiite, in a bid to change its ethnic makeup and prevent its oil wealth falling into the hands of Kurdish rebels.
On Thursday, UN special representative Staffan de Mistura criticised MPs for dropping Article 50, the clause reserving council seats for Iraq's minority communities.
He called for the clause to be reinstated by October 15.
"There is a need to reconsider the situation in order not to deprive Christians and other minorities of their rights, because it is a dangerous precedent," Deputy Prime Minister Barhem Saleh, a Kurd, said on Friday.
"There will be cooperation with the parliament to correct the situation."
Although the bill is now effectively a law, parliament can amend the legislation.
About 400,000 Christians live in Iraq, half the number there were before the US-led invasion of 2003. The country also has other minority groups including the Yazidis, a non-Muslim Kurdish community.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has also called on the electoral commission to ensure that the rights of minority communities are protected by the law.
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