Iraqis defer vote on election law

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

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi parliament failed Monday for a second time to vote on a measure crucial to organizing January elections that will choose a new parliament and serve as a milestone in U.S. 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 measure 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 constitutional 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," said 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 U.S. Embassy lingered on the sidelines. As each hour passed, confidence receded that any quick compromise would cut through a Gordian knot of such issues 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, it will be 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 region, whose oil reserves make it strategically important. Kurds maintain that such a majority reflects the return of their people who were displaced by an Arabization campaign carried out under Saddam Hussein. Arabs and Turkmens accuse the Kurds of manipulating demographics, bringing Kurds to the region who did not originate there.

Arab lawmakers have insisted on using a voter roll from 2004. Kurds have insisted on using the most up-to-date voter registrations, 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 are opposed; if quotas are set for Kirkuk, they ask, why are there no quotas in areas with Kurdish minorities?

Another issue is how to organize the ballot -- whether voters will choose a single electoral list, individual candidates or a mixture of both.

At least publicly, most parties have backed a ballot of individual candidates -- a demand of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric. That plan is popular, too, among a public growing disenchanted with government ineffectiveness and corruption. But in private, many of the parties are thought to back a ballot of electoral lists, in which they would exercise far more control over who entered parliament.

If lawmakers cannot agree on the legislation, the election will be organized under a 2005 law by which voters chose only an electoral list, not individual candidates.

"I think there are some blocs who are probably happy with this," said Haider al-Abadi, a lawmaker and Maliki adviser. "They're just sitting in the back seat, they're not doing anything. They're not helping solve the issue. In actual fact, they're adding proposals to delay the issue, complicate the issue, so that the old law will remain."

In that potentially grim scenario, some parties might boycott the election in Kirkuk. In predominantly Shiite areas, where Sistani commands great influence, there would be popular disenchantment with the election, possibly dampening turnout.

"The most dangerous route is to delay the election," Abadi said. He called a ballot organized around electoral lists "the second-worst one."

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