Iraqis reach tentative deal on contested election legislation

By Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri
Friday, November 27, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's factions pulled the country back from crisis Thursday, reaching a tentative compromise on contested legislation to organize elections next year and potentially avoiding a second veto that could have delayed the vote for months.

If the deal holds -- politicians were being briefed on it Thursday evening -- it would offer another example of what has become politics as usual in Iraq: A mounting crisis threatens to cast the country into further ethnic and sectarian strife, before a closed-door solution is reached at what appears to be the last minute.

"We've reached an understanding," declared Abdul-Ilah Kazem, a spokesman for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab and key player in the crisis.

The crisis appeared to move a long way toward being settled on the eve of a major Muslim holiday, as lawmakers shuttled between U.N. and election officials in hopes of convincing them that all parties could be satisfied.

Although security has improved in the past year, the crisis had led to Sunni Arab and even Kurdish calls for a boycott of the elections, which will choose a parliament and, in turn, a government that will preside over Iraq as the United States withdraws the last of its 115,000 troops. The Sunni threats were reminiscent of 2005, when the community largely refrained from voting -- a decision widely seen as setting the stage for brutal internecine strife in 2006 and 2007.

"If the law was vetoed again, and then parliament overrode that veto, a lot of bridges would have been broken," said Hadi al-Ameri, a Shiite Islamist lawmaker who played a key role in the negotiations. "We want to keep these bridges, and we want to keep the consensus that we've had."

But problems remain. Election officials have yet to endorse the tentative deal, although one said it "looks promising."

Iraq's electoral commission must sign off on any agreement, and its members are loath to sanction a deal that seems to subvert the wording of the legislation. If they do, the results of the vote will almost certainly be contested by losing parties, who would deem the elections illegal.

Even with an agreement, election officials said it would be almost impossible to hold the elections in January as originally planned. February is more likely.

The legislation was originally passed Nov. 8 in a vote hailed by the Obama administration, which sees the election as milestone in its plans to withdraw all but 50,000 troops from the country by next August. But Hashimi, one of three members of Iraq's Presidency Council, each with the power of veto, rejected the measure, saying it gave too little representation to millions of Iraqi exiles, many of them Sunni Arabs.

Parliament amended the legislation this week, with a change that appeared to backfire on Hashimi. Under the revision, Iraqi exiles would be counted in their home provinces. But a new way of allotting seats meant that majority-Sunni provinces would have fewer members of parliament than they would have under the original legislation.

Sunnis were outraged, although some blamed Hashimi for a deal that became worse the second time around. Hashimi himself was angry, and hours after the vote, his aides and supporters said he would almost certainly veto the legislation.

Under the tentative agreement, the law would be interpreted loosely, politicians acknowledged. Ameri said Kurds, who were bitter over the number of seats they received under the original legislation, would maintain the larger share they received under the amended version. He said Sunni provinces would retain the number of seats they had under the original measure. That was particularly a concern in Nineveh, a majority-Sunni province and a fault line between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq.

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