BAGHDAD – Iraq said Tuesday that it will hold long-awaited provincial elections on Jan. 31, a step forward for U.S.-backed efforts to promote national reconciliation even though a key northern area will not participate in the vote.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Cabinet decided on the date, which had been widely expected, at a meeting Tuesday. The announcement of the election date comes as parliament prepares for a Nov. 24 vote on a U.S.-Iraqi security pact to allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years.
Both developments followed months of painstaking negotiations to balance the interests of Iraq's rival factions, reflecting continued sectarian and ethnic tensions in the country despite a decline in violence.
The elections had been hoped for as early as Oct. 1. They will be the first provincial elections since 2005, when Iraq's insurgency was far stronger than it is now.
While the security situation has improved, Iraqi politics are still vulnerable to sectarian divisions among the country's major factions: Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The elections will not take place in Tamim province, which includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Lawmakers had decided to postpone a decision on how to resolve a power-sharing dispute over Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders believe should be incorporated into their semi-autonomous region in the north.
Tahir Mohammed, a Kurdish elections official, also said no date has been set for elections in the three provinces in the Kurd-administered region. Iraq has 18 provinces.
Faraj al-Haidari, a senior electoral official, said the Cabinet decided on the date after consulting the Iraqi High Electoral Commission.
"We have completed all our preparations for the elections and we are fully ready and we have no problem with this date," al-Haidari said
U.S. officials hope the election will give greater representation to minority Sunni Arabs. 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 the seats.