Iraqi logjam over vote law illustrates waning U.S. clout

A vote on the election law has been put off amid bickering over how to hold elections in disputed Kirkuk.
A vote on the election law has been put off amid bickering over how to hold elections in disputed Kirkuk. (Yahya Ahmed/associated Press)
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By Ernesto LondoƱo and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

BAGHDAD -- An impasse over a law crucial to organizing next year's Iraqi elections is illustrating more starkly than ever the United States' dwindling ability to shape Iraqi politics and settle disputes.

U.S. and U.N. officials have grown increasingly worried in recent days as Iraqi lawmakers have continued to put off a vote amid bickering over how to hold elections in the disputed city of Kirkuk. Because the stalemate threatens to delay the elections, and a delay could paralyze the Iraqi government, U.S. commanders may be forced to reevaluate whether to postpone the pullout of their troops.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill has spent hours in Iraq's parliament in recent days trying to narrow the divide between Sunnis and Kurds over Kirkuk.

Vice President Biden on Sunday called Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan, and asked him to nudge the Kurds in parliament to get behind the latest U.N. proposal to end the deadlock.

American officials, who to varying degrees have run this country for six years, are finding that they can do little these days other than ask and prod.

U.S. officials have privately expressed optimism about a breakthrough, only to see deals unravel. The vote is scheduled for Jan. 16, two weeks before the constitutionally mandated deadline to hold an election.

"The sense I got is that the Americans are more worried about this than the Iraqis," said Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from a trip to Iraq organized by the military. "I think it will be done in an Iraqi time frame, five minutes past the eleventh hour. It's not going to be smooth and expeditious."

Kurdish lawmaker Serwan al-Zahawi said he and his colleagues welcome U.S. input. But he made clear that these days, a call from the American vice president is not what it used to be.

"The advice and recommendations he makes on some issues is seen as practical and acceptable," Zahawi said. "But they are not compulsory. We are not bound by them."

The dispute over oil-rich Kirkuk is not new. The city is the most contested along a 300-mile frontier of disputed territories claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. It was excluded from provincial elections this year because lawmakers were unable to agree on how to divide seats there.

Saddam Hussein forcibly displaced Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding areas during his reign. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurdish officials offered Kurds incentives to move back, causing the city's Kurdish population to swell dramatically.

Kurds want election officials to use current voter rolls. Sunnis demand that older rosters be used, saying many of the current residents are not legitimate Kirkukis.

The United Nations has put forward several proposals in recent days. The latest suggests that election officials use the most recent voter rolls and establish a review period, which could change the election outcome.

Both sides have been intransigent, saying any compromise now would set a precedent for the broader fight over control of Kirkuk.

"Any concession made by the Kurdish coalition would be political suicide," Zahawi said.

Ezzeddine al-Dawla, a Sunni lawmaker, said the recent population growth in Kirkuk has "not been natural."

"There are some who want to exploit this critical time to resolve the Kirkuk problem in their favor," he said. "We will not accept that."

American officials are widely seen as the only potential brokers in the Arab-Kurd dispute over land. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wants a larger share of the shrinking number of American soldiers deployed along disputed areas.

Sam Parker, an expert on Iraqi politics at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, "I think there's room for us to get more involved in Arab-Kurd issues." He added: "The election battle is a proxy for that broader conflict."

Although overall violence is down in Iraq, recent blasts targeting prominent government buildings have raised fears about a spike in attacks in the lead-up to the election.

Seating a government after the country's first post-invasion election, in 2005, took several months. Violence surged during that period, contributing to the perception that no one was in charge.

U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that forming a government could take several months this time around as well.

"You've never done a transition while you've had a sovereign Iraqi army," Parker said. "There are questions about whether the army will transfer its loyalty."

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