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Time running out for Iraq poll in 2008

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s Electoral Commission said on Sunday time was running out to hold provincial elections this year because of parliament’s delay in passing legislation needed for the poll.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has set October 1 as the date for the provincial elections, which will provide early clues on how parties will fare in parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009 -- polls that will determine if Maliki himself will remain in power.

The Electoral Commission sent a letter to parliament on Sunday urging it to ratify the draft law soon, the commission head Faraj al-Haidari told Reuters by telephone.

“We need at least three months after the law is passed to prepare so polling can be up to international standards,” he said.

“Even if the law is passed in the coming days, we will only be able to vote at the end of the year. Any more delay and we won’t be able to have elections this year.”

The law lays down procedures for the elections.

Parliament is expected to meet again on Monday to try to pass the law after a row broke out last week over what to do about voting in the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk.

Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani has urged lawmakers to pass the draft.

Washington sees the elections as vital to reconciling Iraq’s divided communities, particularly by boosting the participation of Sunni Arabs in politics. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last local polls in January 2005.

“What’s very plain is the Iraqi people want provincial elections. The political parties all know that ... if they are perceived as not delivering on the law, they will be blamed and their political fortunes will suffer,” a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, wishing to remain anonymous, said last week.

But Kirkuk remains a thorny issue, with lawmakers arguing over whether the vote there should proceed.

Kurds, who run the largely autonomous northern Kurdistan region, see Kirkuk as their ancient capital and want a referendum to be held to decide who controls the city.

Arabs encouraged to move there under Saddam Hussein want it to stay under central Iraqi government control.

Analysts say the elections will also be the battleground for a power struggle among majority Shi’ites in the oil rich south.

Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Dean Yates and Mariam Karouny