Iraqi Kurds warn of election boycott in dispute over seats

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 17, 2009; 5:40 PM

BAGHDAD -- Kurdish officials threatened Tuesday to boycott the upcoming national election in the three provinces they control in northern Iraq unless more parliament seats are allocated to the region.

The threat came two days after Iraq's Sunni vice president said he would veto the election law passed last week unless more seats are set aside for representatives of Iraqi refugees. The majority of Iraqis abroad are Sunni.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has until Wednesday to veto the law, which legislators approved after weeks of wrangling, primarily over how the vote would be held in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

The two ultimatums underscored the deep divisions among Iraqi politicians and raised fresh concerns about Iraq's ability to hold a credible election by Jan. 18.

U.S. officials see the vote as a key turning point that they hope will contribute to a smooth withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops by the end of summer.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, said in a statement that the seat allocation system, which is based on food ration cards issued by the Trade Ministry, is "illogical, contradicts the reality on the ground and is a distortion of the facts."

He said using the system as a benchmark for seat distribution "is an attempt to reduce the number of Kurdistan Region representatives in the next Iraqi parliament and diminish their achievements."

The Iraqi parliament has 275 seats. The election law created 48 additional seats. Of those, eight are earmarked for representatives of exiled Iraqis. Hashimi says they should have three times as many. A spokeswoman for the vice president said he will probably veto the law Wednesday to kick it back to parliament.

The three provinces that make up the Kurdish government -- Sulaymaniyah, Irbil and Dahuk -- currently have 34 seats. Under the recently approved law, they will be entitled to 38.

Kurds have amassed considerable political capital in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion while running their region like an independent state. If they boycott the election, they stand to lose their clout in Baghdad.

Kurds have made similar threats in the past as a means to gain leverage in negotiations.

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