Iraqi Election Uncertain; Troops Drawdown Could Be Affected

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BAGHDAD, Oct. 13 -- American officials in Baghdad urged Iraqi lawmakers Tuesday to pass an election law crucial for organizing a January vote that the Obama administration considers key to withdrawing U.S. combat troops.

In a statement, U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the American military commander here, said they were concerned that parliament hasn't yet reached an agreement on the law. They urged lawmakers "to act expeditiously on this important legislation that will set the terms for successful, transparent political participation in this milestone event." A day earlier, Ad Melkert, the U.N. representative in Iraq, voiced similar concerns.

Lawmakers have resumed negotiations over the legislation, which election officials said must be approved by Thursday to give them enough time to organize the parliamentary vote.

But stark differences among politicians suggest the Iraqis might miss the deadline, and the statement from Hill and Odierno underlined U.S. concerns about the possible consequences. U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that postponing the vote beyond January would lead to violating the constitution and throwing Iraq's nascent political system into limbo.

So far, two key contentious issues have held up the legislation. The first is how the vote should be conducted in Kirkuk, a northern oil-rich city that is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. The results there could be deployed by parties to reinforce their claims over the city. The second issue is how to organize the ballot -- whether voters will choose an electoral list, individual candidates or a mixture of both.

"Every party wants a law that would guarantee its interests and victory," said Ezzeddine al-Dawla, a Sunni lawmaker.

"We don't have solutions," added Wael Abdel Latif, a Shiite independent lawmaker.

If the Iraqis miss the Thursday deadline, the election will be organized under a 2005 law by which voters chose only an electoral list, not individual candidates. After the election, party leaders name politicians to occupy the seats they won.

Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has denounced that law, insisting that parliament adopt legislation that would allow voters to choose individual candidates, known as the open list, as a way to bring new figures into the political fray. It is politically impossible for any Shiite party or politician to openly contest Sistani's will, meaning that some version of the open list is likely.

"We will not vote if they adopt the closed list system," said Mohamad Jawad Gilian, who owns a mobile phone store in Tweirij, south of Baghdad. "We want to know who we are voting for. We want to elect people who'd work for us, people we can trust."

Brig. Gen. Steven Lanza, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces here, said during a news conference this week that the next significant drawdown in numbers of U.S. troops would take place after the election, now scheduled for Jan. 16.

"I really think the elections will be a point of departure," Lanza said.

The Obama administration has set a deadline of August for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq. About 50,000 are expected to remain, most of them in a training capacity. Under a U.S.-Iraqi agreement, all troops must leave by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, the Oil Ministry on Tuesday postponed until January its second bidding round for oil and gas fields. In a statement, the ministry said that 45 companies would be allowed to bid in the auction to develop 10 fields. The round was originally scheduled for mid-December. The ministry did not explain the delay.

In the first round, held in June, the country awarded one contract out of the eight offered.

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