Iraq says it intends to make 3 new provinces

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Shiite-led government said Tuesday it had decided in principle to create three new provinces from contested parts of the country in an apparent attempt to address Sunni grievances and counter the expansion of the Kurdish self-rule region.

One of those provinces would be centered on Fallujah, a city overrun earlier this month by al-Qaida and allied insurgents after more than a year of protests there and in other Sunni cities against what they consider treatment as second-class citizens. Separate province status was not a major Sunni demand, but it could allow the area to receive increased federal funding.

The other two areas — Tuz Khormato and the Ninevah Plain — border Iraq's northern Kurdish self-rule region. The former is a mixed city containing Arabs, Kurds, and ethnic Turkomen, while the latter has a large Christian population.

A statement said the Cabinet had "agreed in principle to turn the areas of Tuz, Fallujah and the Ninevah Plain into provinces and the Cabinet will decide after the fulfilment of the necessary requirements." It did not give a reason for the decision.

Turkomen and Christians, many of whom fear absorption into the Kurdistan Regional Government, have been demanding separate province status for Tuz Khormato and Ninevah Plain for years. The Fallujah announcement however was unexpected.

Iraqi security forces have besieged Fallujah and are battling to take back the nearby city of Ramadi, parts of which are also held by militants.

Also Tuesday, online footage appeared to show the execution of four Iraqi soldiers captured by al-Qaida militants weeks ago near the city of Fallujah.

The video, which could not be independently verified but appeared consistent with AP reporting, showed the soldiers kneeling with their hands and a gunman shooting them in their heads from behind. No date was given for the execution.

Security forces on Monday found the bodies of four soldiers in al-Bubali village, a day after it was retaken by Iraqi troops.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded near a car dealership in Baghdad's central al-Nahda area, killing five people and wounding 16 others, security and health officials said.

Later in the day, local officials said gunmen abducted Mahmoud Fayadh, a security adviser to the governor of Anbar, as he was driving on a highway near Fallujah.

All officials who spoke anonymously did so because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Also, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday that Iraq hanged 26 prisoners convicted of terrorism-related charges, all of them Iraqi nationals.

A statement posted on the ministry's website said the executions were carried out on Sunday for those found guilty of carrying out "ugly terrorist attacks" against the Iraqi people.

The statement quoted the justice minister, Hassan al-Shimari, as saying those executed included Adel-al-Mashhadani, a former anti-al-Qaida Sunni leader in Baghdad who was sentenced to death in late 2009 for murder and kidnapping.

Human rights groups have long criticized trial procedures in Iraqi courts, arguing that some verdicts are based on testimony obtained by torture or forced statements.

The Iraqi government defends the death penalty as a weapon against insurgents bent on destabilizing the country.

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