Iraq passes crucial election law for 2010

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By Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher
Monday, November 9, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi lawmakers passed an election law Sunday night, overcoming a weeks-long impasse and averting a constitutional crisis that threatened to delay the U.S. troop drawdown.

The vote was held during a rare evening session preceded by intense lobbying efforts by U.S. and U.N. diplomats, who had grown increasingly frustrated by the sluggish pace of negotiations and the acrimony that characterized them.

"This was amazing for me," Kurdish lawmaker Ala Talabani said after leaving the session. "There was a lot of discussion, a lot of arguing, but we finally were forced to listen to each other. It's a nice feeling -- that we're on the path of real democracy."

To address the most contentious issue, Kurdish and Arab lawmakers agreed that votes cast in the disputed province of Kirkuk would be examined closely for months after the election.

The yearlong review period was established to determine how dramatically the influx of Kurds to Kirkuk since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has altered the province's demographics.

The assessment could ultimately change the outcome of the election in that province, and the process could exacerbate a bitter, decades-long fight over ancestry, oil and control of the city.

Sunni Arabs in the city accuse Kurds of artificially boosting their population in an effort to eventually control the oil-rich city and annex it to their autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Saddam Hussein expelled Kurds from Kirkuk and neighboring cities and villages in northern Iraq during his tenure.

Despite opposition from the Kurdish bloc, lawmakers agreed to use an open-list system, which will give political parties and factions less flexibility to distribute seats. Advocates of an open-list election hope it will make Iraqi politicians more transparent and more responsive to constituents.

The law passed by a comfortable margin, with 141 of the 195 present lawmakers voting in favor. There are 275 Iraqi lawmakers. The Iraqi presidency council is expected to ratify it within days.

President Obama, during remarks Sunday afternoon in the Rose Garden, congratulated Iraqi leaders for passing the law. "Their flexibility and commitment to their country sends an important signal to the world about Iraq's democracy and national unity," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill said the election will probably be held Jan. 23, a few days later than originally scheduled but within the timeframe mandated by the constitution.

Hill said U.S. officials are heavily engaged in the process, and sought to assure lawmakers that the language of the election law would not be binding to future negotiations over control of Kirkuk.

Sunday's session and the preceding weeks of tense discussions about the election law underscored the deep divisions and suspicion that characterize Iraqi politics. Several closed-door meetings and sessions ended abruptly amid shouting matches and walkouts -- a potentially ominous sign of how difficult building a new government will be.

A months-long dispute over who would get top positions after the 2005 election contributed to a state of virtual anarchy amid rising violence -- a scenario American officials hope will be avoided next year. In a sign of the waning leverage of the U.S. government, some lawmakers said they pushed back aggressively on what they saw as American meddling, and U.S. officials were often scrambling to learn what had transpired at closed sessions and private meetings in recent days.

Some Sunnis were visibly angry after the session. They decried the resolution over Kirkuk, and said the bill does not do enough to give Iraqi refugees a stake in the political process.

Iraqis overseas can vote for seven slots, but Sunni lawmakers said they deserve more robust representation.

"This law is an injustice," prominent Sunni lawmaker Salih al-Mutlak said after the vote.


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