BAGHDAD - Iraq's Cabinet yesterday approved the draft of a general amnesty bill for detainees being held in Iraqi prisons, a measure that could go a long way toward reconciling Iraq's warring sects and factions.

But the measure won't be brought to parliament for debate until March at the earliest, said Sami al-Askari a key adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many key draft laws - including measures to share oil revenue and to allow some members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to hold government jobs - have remained mired for months in Iraq's gridlocked parliament.

There was no immediate reaction from Sunni lawmakers, who have in the past called for such a bill.

Government spokesmen said the amnesty would not cover those convicted of terrorism, corruption, crimes against humanity and kidnapping. Nor will the draft involve prisoners being held by American forces.

Both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military each hold more than 20,000 prisoners detained since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

It wasn't clear how many prisoners might be affected by the proposed ban. Al-Askari estimated that "80 percent of those held in Iraqi prisons are there for terrorist crimes, therefore the amnesty would be for a limited number."

In northern Iraq, Kurdish officials have delayed for six months the explosive issue of a referendum to decide if the oil-rich city of Kirkuk will become part of their self-rule area or remain under control of the Shiite-dominated central government.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil, largely because much of Iraq's oil wealth lies below it.

The Iraqi constitution requires that a referendum on the future status of the city be held to determine whether it will remain under Baghdad's control, become part of Kurdistan or gain autonomy from both.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said that an insurgent killed last month has been identified as a senior leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and a former associate of its late leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was slain by U.S. forces last year.

Abu Abdullah, also known as Muhammad Sulayman Shunaythir al-Zubai, was killed by coalition troops north of Baghdad on Nov. 8. He was described in a military statement as "an experienced bomb maker and attack planner who coordinated numerous attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces over the past three years, using a variety of improvised explosive devices combined with small-arms fire."

The U.S. military said that two soldiers were killed during fighting yesterday in Ninevah province in the north. Three other soldiers were wounded. The names of the soldiers were withheld pending notification of family.

Separately, a bomb explosion in Ninevah killed three children and wounded another two, the U.S. military said, quoting Iraqi police. *