Elections Bill in Iraq Stalls On Kirkuk

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 4, 2008

BAGHDAD, Aug. 3 -- Iraqi lawmakers on Sunday failed to settle a dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and pass a provincial elections bill viewed as vital for national reconciliation, despite intense pressure from the United States and the United Nations.

The political stalemate came as a car exploded in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of northern Baghdad, killing 12 and wounding 22, according to police. Later Sunday, a car bombing in front of a coffee shop in the southern city of Hilla killed one person and injured 12, police said.

The attacks underscored Iraq's fragile security, even as levels of violence across the country fall to four-year lows.

Iraq's parliament called a special session Sunday to vote for the second time on the elections bill, which must be approved before elections can be held in the country's 18 provinces. But the session never convened, because Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on Kirkuk, where their respective ethnic groups are locked in a struggle for land and resources.

Kurds want Kirkuk to become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, but Arabs and Turkmens want the city to remain under central government control.

The elections would give more power to regions as well as to Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. The Bush administration views the vote as vital to bridging Iraq's political divide and cementing security gains.

But even before Sunday, Iraq's electoral commission had said the elections, originally scheduled for Oct. 1, could not take place until early next year.

On Sunday, President Bush telephoned Iraq's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, as well as the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, according to statements from their offices. U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and U.N. special representative Staffan de Mistura met late Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to find ways to dissolve the impasse.

"President Bush has been working with the Iraqis to encourage them to work out their differences and get the provincial elections law passed," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters in Washington.

Last month, Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the first vote, but parliament passed the bill in a secret ballot. President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, vetoed the bill, sending it back to parliament for further discussion.

The Kurds rejected provisions in the bill that called for Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens to have an equal number of seats on the provincial council of Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital.

Tensions have risen dramatically since then. Last week, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives in a crowd of Kurds protesting the legislation, triggering ethnic clashes that pit Kurds against Turkmens and Arabs. The bombing and fighting killed 25 and injured 187, according to police and hospital officials in Kirkuk. Since then, more demonstrations against the elections bill have further stoked tensions.

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