BAGHDAD (AP) – Under strong U.S. pressure, Iraq’s presidential council signed off Wednesday on a measure paving the way for provincial elections by the fall, a major step toward easing sectarian rifts as the nation marks the fifth anniversary of the war.

The decision by the council, made up of the country’s president and two vice presidents, lays the groundwork for voters to choose new leaders of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The elections open the door to greater Sunni representation in regional administrations.

Many Sunnis boycotted the last election for provincial officials in January 2005, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power at the expense of the Sunnis – even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.

That in turn helped fuel the Sunni-led insurgency and the wave of sectarian bloodletting which drove the country to the brink of civil war before President Bush rushed nearly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq last year.

The decision by the council came two days after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad to press Iraqi leaders to overcome their differences and take advantage of a lull in violence to make progress in power-sharing deals to heal sectarian and ethnic divisions.

A spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc, Saleem Abdullah, said Cheney pushed hard for progress on the provincial elections as well as a long-stalled measure to share the country’s oil wealth.

Last month, Iraq’s parliament passed the bill calling for provincial elections by Oct. 1. But the presidential council blocked implementation after the Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, raised objections to some of the provisions.

That outraged followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are eager for elections to take power away from Abdul-Mahdi’s party in the vast, oil-rich Shiite heartland of southern Iraq. Al-Sadr’s supporters believed their Shiite rivals were trying to delay the vote to hold on to power.

Although many details must still be worked out before a vote can be scheduled, the council’s decision Wednesday makes it likely that a vote can take place later this year.

“This is a good, positive step to enhance national unity and defuse the political tension,” Nasser al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker and presidential council spokesman, told The Associated Press.

The difficulty in arranging for provincial balloting underscored the immense challenges involved in trying to distribute power among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In a statement marking the fifth anniversary, President Jalal Talabani hailed the fall of Saddam’s regime but warned that “the march that started five years ago will not succeed” unless Iraqis can achieve “real reconciliation among our people.”

Power-sharing agreements were the goal of last year’s buildup of U.S. troops.

As the war enters its sixth year, the number of attacks has dropped with the addition of the extra 30,000 American troops, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a cease-fire by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

But political progress has been slow.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told CNN that “we’re in a good, better, place in terms of security” than a year ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war.

But Petraeus added that “progress is tenuous” and “there are innumerable challenges out there.”

“The situation is more secure for more Iraqis in more parts of Iraq than at any point really since late 2003,” said David Satterfield, the State Department’s top Iraq adviser.

“That does not mean that security is by any means assured or fully achieved for Iraqis or for U.S. and coalition forces,” Satterfield told the AP. “Al-Qaida remains lethal. It remains determined to pursue its campaign of brutality and terror.”

As a sign of the ongoing threat, a woman suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest packed with ball bearings Wednesday near a bus terminal in Balad Ruz northeast of Baghdad, killing at least three people, according to police.

If the attacker’s identity is confirmed, it would raise to eight the number of women suicide bombers so far this year.

To the north, U.S. troops accidentally killed three Iraqi policemen and wounded another, the military said, the latest in a series of friendly fire incidents.

The Iraqi patrol, which was responding to an unrelated request for assistance, raised suspicion as it sped toward U.S. troops operating in a cordoned-off area, Spc. Megan Burmeister, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.

Local police officials acknowledged the Iraqis had sent the patrol without informing the Americans.

A suicide car bomb also struck an Iraqi army building in the northwestern city of Mosul, wounding 14 people, police said. And a bomb stuck to a taxi exploded in central Baghdad, killing a police colonel and wounding a passenger and three pedestrians, police said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday in a vehicle rollover in Iraq’s volatile Diyala province, the military announced. At least 3,991 American service members have died since the start of the war.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-19-08 1512EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.