By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2008
BAGHDAD, Sept. 24 -- Iraq's parliament passed a provincial elections law Wednesday that paves the way for balloting in most parts of the country by Jan. 31 and that could help bolster efforts at national reconciliation.
But lawmakers decided to postpone debate over one of the most contentious issues facing Iraq -- the dispute between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens over power sharing in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The legislators also did not resolve how to best achieve political representation for Iraq's Christians and other minorities.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders hailed the legislation as a step toward bridging sectarian and political divides. Some voiced hope that Iraq's feuding political parties could push through other stalled legislation, especially proposed laws governing Iraq's oil and gas industries.
Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, said the elections law "was what the people of Iraq, not the politicians, wanted."
In Washington, President Bush spoke by telephone Wednesday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Mashhadani. "The president congratulated them for showing great leadership in the passage of the provincial elections law," said Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman.
"Today's action demonstrates the ability of Iraq's leaders to work together for the good of the Iraqi people and represents further progress on political reconciliation," Bush said in a statement.
But violence continued to erupt. Gunmen ambushed a force of policemen and U.S.-backed Sunni neighborhood patrols Wednesday, killing 35 in the town of Khan Bani Saad, 15 miles southwest of Baqubah in Diyala province.
The election legislation was approved only after Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen lawmakers agreed to a compromise brokered by the United Nations that calls for the creation of a parliamentary committee to review the status of Kirkuk, which the Kurds seek to incorporate into their autonomous region.
Elections will be held in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces by Jan. 31, lawmakers said. They acknowledged it would be difficult to hold any elections this year, as originally scheduled. Faraj al-Hadari, head of the country's electoral commission, said officials needed at least five months to prepare for the vote once the legislation is passed into law, suggesting that elections could be further delayed.
Iraq's three-member presidency council, led by Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, still needs to approve the vote. Talabani vetoed the last attempt by parliament to pass a measure, but this time the presidency was expected to approve it.
The elections are widely expected to give Iraq's Sunni minority a greater share of political power. Many Sunnis boycotted the last provincial election, in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to gain power, even in some majority-Sunni areas.
Not included in the legislation were three provinces in the Kurdish autonomous region and Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital. Hadari said the Kurdish parliament is responsible for organizing elections in the region, expected to be held next year.
The new parliamentary committee is required by the law to make recommendations for separate legislation on Kirkuk by March.
"The main issues about Kirkuk have not been solved," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "Now, this deal for the elections may ease the situation. If this committee could normalize the situation of Kirkuk, it could decrease tensions and create good relations between the parties. We have to wait and see."
The legislation also requires women to hold 25 percent of all seats in the provincial councils. "The passage of this law is a great victory for Iraqi women and Iraq," said Alaa Talabani, a Kurdish lawmaker. "I feel happy over the fact that the cause of women has become an acceptable notion, respected and endorsed by the political forums, which is a victory by itself."
Officials from Iraq's minority groups and the United Nations expressed disappointment that minority rights were not adequately addressed in the law. Iraq's Christians and other minorities were hoping to get a specific percentage of provincial seats allocated to them, giving them a greater political voice.
"We the Chaldeo-Christians feel a great disappointment because what was done today was a regression from democratic practices," said Yonadem Kanna, a lawmaker.
"This is a good day for Iraq and democracy, a day in which Iraqis proved they are capable of reaching a consensus," said U.N. envoy Staffan di Mistura. "But still I say on any great day there is always one cloud, which we had not expected, which is the lack of representation for minorities. I hope this can be rectified."
Special correspondents Qais Mizher, K.I. Ibrahim, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.