By Sudarsan Raghavan and Zaid Sabah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 13 -- The Iraqi parliament on Wednesday passed three key measures that for months had been the subject of bickering that threatened to undermine the country's political process.
The legislation cleared the way for provincial elections, approved the 2008 budget and granted a limited amnesty that will affect thousands of detainees. The proposals were bundled together and passed in a single vote.
"The Iraqi parliament and the political powers have taken a step forward for setting a new brick in the democratic system," said Abbas al-Bayat, a Shiite lawmaker in the ruling alliance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The bundling of the proposals, however, underscored the deep divisions among Iraq's political parties. None trusted the others to pass the three laws separately, each fearing that the measure it cared most about would fail.
"There's no negotiating with faith and trust between the blocs," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "They are afraid to pass one law before the other. They fear each other. It's a shame that our democracy in Iraq is like this."
By voting for the three proposals at once, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the government all got what they had long sought. After the vote, each group proudly declared success.
Sunni politicians wanted the amnesty law because Sunnis make up the vast majority of detainees in Iraq's jails. Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the largest Sunni political bloc, said the law would "free a huge number of innocent detainees who spent a long time inside the prisons." Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody, he added, would be transferred to Iraqi prisons so they would be covered by the law.
The Kurds were pleased with the budget because it allocated 17 percent of the nation's revenue to their regional government. Sunni and Shiite lawmakers had sought to lower the Kurds' share to 14 percent, in their belief that Kurds make up as little as 13 percent of the country's population. But the Kurds reacted furiously to the proposal.
The breakthrough, officials said, apparently came when the Kurds agreed that their share of 17 percent would be reconsidered for the 2009 budget.
"We are totally satisfied with the laws approved today and we don't have any reservations on the amnesty law because it's a good step on the road of the national reconciliation," said Fouad Masoum, head of the Kurdish bloc in the parliament. "The budget law is very important because every state should have its own budget."
Shiites have long wanted provincial elections because they want power to devolve to the provinces and away from the central government. The law passed Wednesday had initially stated that voting would begin Oct. 1. But details on that law, as well as the two other measures, were unclear because last-minute changes had been made to the drafts, officials said.
The measures need to be approved by the three-member presidential council, but are likely to be accepted. Approval of the law on provincial elections marked the passage of only the second of 18 legislative benchmarks that the Bush administration sees as vital to political reconciliation in Iraq.
U.S. officials applauded the passage of the laws, declaring that Iraq was finally reaping political benefits from a downturn in violence under the U.S. offensive that began a year ago.
"The passage of the three laws today showed that the Iraqi leaders are now taking advantage of the opportunity that coalition and Iraqi troopers fought so hard to provide," Gen. David H. Petraeus said in an interview.
The vote came a day after Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Sunni speaker of parliament, threatened to disband the legislature, contending that it was unable to adopt new laws because of the intense mistrust among the parties.
Othman, the independent Kurdish legislator, said it remains to be seen whether Iraq's divisive political parties can put the new laws into effect. "If the blocs don't get together, implementing them will be difficult," he said.
In the southern city of Basra, kidnappers freed an Iraqi interpreter for CBS News, but the British journalist seized with him was still being held captive.
Harith al-Ethari, a senior leader in Basra for Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said negotiations were underway to free the journalist. A group of 20 armed men wearing the uniforms of Iraqi security forces abducted the pair from the Qasr Sultan hotel on Sunday. Ethari denied that Sadr's followers were involved in the kidnappings.
Correspondent Amit R. Paley and special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.