Provincial elections in the Kurdish provinces of Iraq are scheduled for July 25, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government said Tuesday.
Massoud Barzani announced the date for the Kurdish elections before a Tuesday session of the Kurdish Parliament, calling on all parties to adhere to the authority of the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq, the Voices of Iraq news agency reports.
"I call on everyone to respect the political diversity and urge the people of Kurdistan to widely participate in the elections," Barzani added.
In April, Kurdish lawmakers gave Barzani the authority to schedule the date for provincial elections. The Kurdish provinces were set for a May 19 vote, but that date was pushed back as lawmakers wrangled over election laws.
Critics noted that democratic developments in Iraqi Kurdistan lag behind the rest of the country as the two leading parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- enter the provincial contest on a unified ticket.
Kurdish officials say they need a united front to counter increased Arab pressure against their region, noting challenges to Kurdish democracy are healthy for the evolution of the government.
"This is a nascent democracy," PUK leader and Iraqi Vice President Barham Saleh told National Public Radio. "We are trying to establish the basic tenets of democratic government in the heart of the Islamic Middle East."
With a modest protest vote expected in the July polls, however, enough opposition leaders may emerge to open the doors of the Kurdish democracy.
Grand Ayatollah Sadr counters Iran
A visit to Turkey by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr was an attempt to court allies in Ankara to thwart growing Iranian influence in Iraq, analysts said.
Sadr emerged last week in Turkey following two years of isolation in Iran, where he was pursuing his clerical studies.
Sadr met with top Turkish officials, including Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss stability in Iraq amid escalating violence as well as national elections scheduled for December.
The visit is part of an effort by Sadr to establish himself as a political leader in the Shiite community. Sadrist supporters scored moderate gains in the January provincial elections, positioning themselves strongly in several of the Shiite provinces.
Mustafa Ozcan, a prominent journalist and Turkish expert, told the Trend News Agency that Sadr hopes to establish a political force in opposition to Iran that rivals the Lebanese Hezbollah in terms of influence.
"Sadr himself is not enthusiastic about the influence of Iran and therefore wants to put an end to Iran's influence on domestic politics of Iraq," he said.
Meanwhile, sources told the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Sadr emerged from his clerical studies with the rank of grand ayatollah.
Crackdowns prompt Sunni outrage
A government crackdown on members of the Sunni-led Awakening Councils in Iraq threatens to contribute to growing tensions in the country, officials said.
Iraqi police and U.S. military forces arrested the leader of the Balad branch of the Awakening Council, Mullah Nadim al-Jabouri, on terrorism charges in weekend raids, prompting outrage from Sunni tribal elders who say Baghdad is trying to diminish their influence.
Awakening Councils emerged in Anbar province in 2005 as al-Qaida forces gained power in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. The tribal group took the lead in securing political power, while its paramilitary force, Sons of Iraq, eventually coordinated with U.S. forces to tackle the growing insurgency.
Four years on, the Sunni group is looking to play a role in the government, taking eight of the 29 seats in the provincial elections in Anbar province in January.
The crackdown on Awakening elements, however, stoked outrage from Sunni leaders, who say the latest arrests violate agreements with U.S. officials and reflects growing suspicion from the Shiite-led government.
Meanwhile, Abu Ibrahim, an Awakening leader in Baghdad, pointed to growing Iranian influence in the country as the cause for the crackdown, The Times of London reports.
"It's Iran targeting us; I don't think any decent Iraqi would target us," he said. "It's because the Awakening Councils stopped the Iranian expansion into Iraq."
Sunni tribal leaders say their members are not yet looking to return to violence to regain influence, but with the Awakening Councils the target of frequent raids, the threat to stability remains.
Taliban warns of violence
Taliban leaders said they are willing to enter into negotiations once foreign forces leave Afghanistan but threatened more violence in the interim.
"We ask from the beginning and we say once again one to enforce the Shariah law and Islamic government in Afghanistan, and to remove foreign forces remove from our country," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told CNN's Nic Robertson.
In April, Mujahid said Taliban fighters would launch Operation Nasrat this week in an effort to target Western-backed Afghan leaders and coordinate suicide bombings and other attacks on government interests.
Washington has considered negotiating with moderate elements in the Taliban regime as part of a revamped effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Mujahid laid out his terms for those talks, saying they were preconditioned on Afghan independence and the formation of an Islamic government.
He issued further warnings that international forces would be caught up in a military quagmire in Afghanistan, saying additional troops will make no difference.
"Afghanistan will be the Vietnam for them," he told Robertson. "I want to tell you clearly we will win, and they will die."
Obama seeks unified AFPAK strategy
Trilateral meetings with U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials in Washington are expected to focus on a coordinated strategy to tackle the regional insurgency.
U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai to the White House on Wednesday for talks expected to focus on a unified effort at controlling militants along the volatile Afghan-Pakistani border as the regional insurgency gains strength, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Washington is increasingly wary of the ability of Zardari to control a growing Taliban threat in his country as Pakistani officials issued warnings Tuesday to residents in the Swat Valley to flee the area amid a fracturing cease-fire agreement with the Taliban.
Meanwhile, Karzai has prompted concerns from several leading strategists, who worry the incumbent president could move closer to Iranian and Russian allies in the region if he emerges victorious in the August presidential race.
Afghan and Pakistani officials, however, have expressed their desire to coordinate policies to control the volatile border region as both sides seek broader trade and other economic measures.
Zardari and Karzai arrived in Washington on Tuesday. Karzai is expected to lead a delegation of Afghan officials to meet with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to the trilateral meeting.
Afghanistan makes agricultural gains
Substantial rainfall and investments from the donor community may contribute to Afghanistan becoming self-sufficient in wheat production, officials said.
Wheat production accounts for 85 percent of the legal agricultural production in Afghanistan. U.N. officials say renewed donor efforts and increased rainfall in the region may provide a significant boost to the agricultural sector in Afghanistan.
"In 2007, Afghanistan produced 92 percent of its (wheat) needs," said Tekeste Tekie, Afghan representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "This year looks much better than last year. We could say that maybe we are approaching self-sufficiency."
Farmers rely on rainfall to water roughly 3.7 million acres of land in Afghanistan. Tekie said the rainfall in 2008 contributed to a substantial increase in the expected wheat yield.
"At this stage, the estimated yield will be 40 to 50 percent more than last year," he said.
Afghanistan led the region in terms of agricultural production prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and it began exports of several crops in 2008, notably in pomegranates.
Tekie said continued investments, expansions in irrigation and better farming practices would contribute to the viable agricultural sector in Afghanistan.
"What we need to do here is to make agriculture more efficient," he said.