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UN: Iraqi Provincial Elections on Track for January

The U.N.'s top envoy to Iraq says provincial elections scheduled for early next year are on track, but warned that violence could spike and spoilers could try to derail the vote. Meanwhile, the U.N. mandate authorizing U.S. forces to be in Iraq will expire at the end of this year, and the two countries have yet to finalize an agreement on the future status of the U.S. presence. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The United States and the United Nations said the levels of violence in Iraq are steadily decreasing, basic services are slowly improving and the Iraqi security forces are growing both in size and ability.

The next test of progress for this nascent democracy will be provincial elections scheduled for January 31st, 2009. They will take place in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces - everywhere except the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the country's north.

The United Nation's top envoy in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council Friday that the focus of the U.N.'s work right now is preparing for that election, which is seen as a major step toward political stabilization.

"The Iraqi people want these elections. The forthcoming elections are rightly viewed as an opportunity to establish a more inclusive sectarian balance and shape a new political landscape and are the most significant political event in the forthcoming months," de Mistura said.

He said the election preparations are on track, but spoilers could try to derail them and a spike in violence leading up to them would not be surprising.

Meanwhile, the U.N. mandate governing the presence of U.S. and foreign troops in Iraq is due to expire at the end of this year. The United States and Iraq have been engaged in lengthy and difficult negotiations on an agreement - known as the status of forces agreement [SOFA] -- that would replace the U.N. mandate.

Iraqi Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati said he is optimistic an agreement can be reached before the mandate expires.

"We are still optimistic that an agreement will be reached between the Iraqi and the U.S. government regarding the status of forces agreement. However, we keep all our options open. We still have the chance if they cannot reach an agreement by the end of December to go back to the Security Council to ask for the extension of the mandate for the multinational forces," he said.

The current draft agreement calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 2009 and from the entire country by 2011. But there are still some sticking points. Ambassador Bayati said the most important issue for Baghdad is that of Iraqi jurisdiction over U.S. forces in Iraq, removing their immunity in cases of crimes committed in the line of duty.