Iraqis Take Flawed Step On Electoral Legislation
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 22 -- Iraq's parliament passed legislation Tuesday setting new rules for provincial elections, a step widely viewed here as critical to the country's process of political reconciliation.
But Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote over the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich, ethnically mixed city that Kurdish leaders believe should come under the control of their autonomous regional government in northern Iraq. The move could undermine the legislation and delay the provincial elections, which had been expected this fall.
The controversy underscored the tensions across the political spectrum in Iraq, as well as potential flash points for violence, as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama left the country for Jordan. At a news conference in Amman, Jordan's capital, the senator said that Iraq's political progress was lagging, despite improvements in security.
"So far, I think we have not seen the kind of political reconciliation that's going to bring about long-term stability in Iraq. But there's no doubt that security has improved," Obama said.
The provincial elections law would bring more power to regions and empower Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005, and strengthen the Sunnis' position in a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds. The Bush administration has been pushing for the elections, viewing them as vital to bridging Iraq's political divide and cementing security gains. But political disputes between ethnic and sectarian groups have delayed passage of the bill for months.
After the Kurdish walkout Tuesday, Khalid al-Attiyah, the deputy parliamentary speaker, said it was unlikely that Iraq's three-member presidency council, headed by President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, would ratify the bill. If so, it could be sent back to parliament.
"We did not want for this law to be a reason for tension or poisoning the political atmosphere, but unfortunately this took place," Attiyah said. "The vote is a useless act, other than to delay and paralyze."
Even if the law is enacted, it is unlikely that provincial elections will take place Oct. 1, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought. Faraj al-Haidari, the head of the Iraqi electoral commission, said there wasn't time to prepare for elections by that date. If the legislation is ratified by the end of this month, the earliest elections could be held would be late December, he said.
"We have lost the chance to conduct the elections this year," Attiyah said.
Lawmakers have been bogged down over the details of a power-sharing arrangement in Kirkuk among the city's three main ethnic groups -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The Kurds want the city to become part of the mostly autonomous Kurdish region, but Arabs and Turkmens want it to be under the central government.
Kurds currently hold 21 of the 41 seats on the provincial council of Tamim, of which Kirkuk is the capital. Turkmens have 11 seats and Arabs eight. A Christian holds the remaining one. The U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kirkuk, a diplomatic mission, estimates that at least 60 percent of Tamim's population is Kurdish, while Arabs account for nearly 30 percent.
Saddam Hussein oppressed Kurds in northern Iraq for years. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, they became politically dominant in the province in part because many Sunnis boycotted elections.
Arabs and Turkmens accuse the Kurds of funneling thousands of Kurds into the city and nearby areas to manipulate the voting population in their favor. So the central parliament decided to allocate the three groups 10 seats apiece on the provincial governing council. Candidates from the same group would compete for each seat.
The Kurds opposed such a distribution, as well as an item in the new bill that called for a secret ballot to decide the power-sharing arrangement. On Tuesday, after the Kurdish lawmakers walked out, the parliament went ahead and passed the bill.
"This is the first time to use a secret vote in an important law like this. We believe its illegal," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator.
But Arab and Turkmen politicians welcomed the vote. "Iraqi representatives were united today against the Kurdish demand," said Saad Aldeen Mahmoud Ameen, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Turkmen Front party.
If Talabani does not veto the bill, Kirkuk's political landscape is likely to change dramatically after the provincial elections. The provincial council elects the governor and the chairman of the council and will have even broader powers under the new election law.
Splitting the council's seats into thirds would have significant repercussions, said Howard L. Keegan, the provincial reconstruction team's leader in Kirkuk.
"It's going to have a huge impact," he said. "The Kurds, understandably, are not excited about being a minority. The history here runs very, very deep. The last time they were a minority, they suffered a great deal at the hands of some of the same people that would be taking office."
Losing political power in Kirkuk is likely to hinder the Kurds' long-standing goal of annexing the city into the Kurdistan Regional Government. Keegan said it's too early to tell how Kurds in Kirkuk will react to parliament's vote.
"The likelihood of a violent uprising is unlikely," he said. "A U.S. combat brigade sits up here."
Londoño reported from Kirkuk. Special correspondents Qais Mizher and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad contributed to this report.