Election law stalls in Iraqi parliament

By Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi parliament failed for a second time Monday to vote on an election law crucial for organizing elections in January that will choose a new parliament and serve as a milestone in American plans to withdraw combat troops from the country.

As is often the case in Iraq, deadlines come and go. But election officials face a logistical challenge ahead of the Jan. 16 vote, the first national election since 2005. They say they need the law passed now to give them roughly three months to prepare for the vote, although they could gain a week or two if the election is delayed. But after that, parliament's term expires, throwing Iraq's nascent political system into an unconstitutional limbo, just months before the U.S. military wants to begin withdrawing troops in earnest.

"If they don't pass a new law, a curse is going to fall on the political parties," warned Safia Sahhal, a secular lawmaker. "Why? Because this is what Iraqis want."

"We don't know what we're going to do," added Faraj al-Haidari, the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission, which organizes the election.

In a statement, U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the American military commander here, had pushed lawmakers to pass the legislation last week. But lawmakers postponed Thursday's vote until Monday. Some predicted the vote could come again as early as Tuesday. Others said it might be weeks away.

Lawmakers resumed negotiations into the evening, as U.N. officials and representatives of the American Embassy lingered on the sidelines. As each hour passed, confidence receded that any quick compromise would cut through a Gordian knot of issues as arcane as the number of seats in a new parliament and the way an election would be organized in Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq contested by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

"Parliament is doing its best," said Hassan al-Suneid, a lawmaker and adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Meetings are going on around the clock."

The debate over the law is perhaps most remarkable for how it intersects with some of the most intractable issues in the country today. In many cases, one will have a bearing on another, making it difficult to resolve one without solving the other.

These days, the most contentious issue has become Kirkuk, where parties fear the results could be used to reinforce their rivals' claims over the city.

A direct vote would probably reflect a significant Kurdish majority in the province, whose oil reserves make it strategically important. Kurds maintain this reflects the return of their people who were displaced by an Arabization campaign carried out under the former government of Saddam Hussein. Arabs and Turkmens accuse the Kurds of manipulating demographics, bringing Kurds to Kirkuk who did not originate there.

Arab lawmakers have insisted on using an older voter roll from 2004. Kurds have insisted on using the most up-to-date voter registration, reflecting the new reality.

As a compromise, lawmakers have debated a proposal in which Kurds would be given a simple majority of seats, with smaller quotas for Arabs, Turkmens and Christians. Kurdish lawmakers say they are opposed. If quotas are guaranteed for Kirkuk, they ask, why won't other quotas be guaranteed for provinces with Kurdish minorities?

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