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World News

Iraqi provinces seek to delay crucial elections

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Officials in Iraq’s restive Nineveh province, which includes the al Qaeda holdout of Mosul, voted on Thursday to try to postpone local elections for six months to let families who fled violence return home.

The attempt to delay the election, which follows a similar move by another volatile region, Diyala, cast doubts on Iraq’s readiness to hold the January 31 polls, seen as a key test of the war-weary nation’s fledgling democracy.

Mohammed Basheer, spokesman for the Nineveh provincial council, said council members who voted in favor of the measure believed a delay was necessary to allow some 45,000 displaced families to return to their homes before the vote.

He said the measure passed with 19 votes in favor and 7 against.

It was not clear whether the council actually had the power to delay the election in the region, which still suffers regular attacks from Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other insurgent groups even as violence in the rest of Iraq declines.

Nineveh Governor Duraid Kashmula said the province on its own could not delay the polls, which are due to be held at the end of next month in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Only the three provinces within semi-autonomous Kurdistan and the province around the disputed city of Kirkuk will not hold elections that day.

Campaigning has already begun among more than 14,000 candidates competing for the 440 provincial council seats.

The elections, Iraq’s first since 2005, could alter the balance of provincial power and signal which political factions will prevail in parliamentary elections due in late 2009.

The vote was postponed indefinitely in Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern province that ethnic Kurds want to have included in Kurdistan and which Arabs and Turkmen want kept under central government control. No date has been set for Kurdish elections.

As bloodshed drops sharply across Iraq, ethnically and religiously mixed Nineveh and Diyala remain two of Iraq’s most stubbornly violent areas.

Thousands of Christians fled Mosul this autumn after several members of the tiny religious minority were attacked. Most are believed to have returned.

But millions of families are displaced within Iraq, some of whom were forced out under former leader Saddam Hussein and some of whom fled violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Some are trickling back now.

Said Arakat, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Baghdad, said efforts were under way to hold the polls as planned. “The United Nations is committed to this date. We believe it will take place on the 31st.”

Reporting by Wisam Mohammed, Shamal Aqrawi and Missy Ryan; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Christie and Charles Dick

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