Iraqi parliament reaches preliminary deal on key vote law

By Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 27, 2009; 10:24 PM

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi politicians pushed ahead Friday with a compromise on a contested election measure, awaiting approval from Kurdish officials on a deal that would increase the number of seats in parliament as a way to mute criticism and allow a vote crucial to U.S. withdrawal plans.

Even with a potential breakthrough, the parliamentary elections originally set for Jan. 16 will be delayed until at least mid-February, Iraqi lawmakers and election officials said. The Obama administration has viewed the elections as a milestone in its plans to withdraw all but 50,000 troops from Iraq by August, and longer delays in the vote could complicate that timetable.

In a statement Friday, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni whose veto of the measure last week plunged Iraqi politics into crisis, called the preliminary agreement "a great step in the right direction." He said he expected Iraq's electoral commission to announce "good news" about efforts to address parties' objections to the legislation.

But Hashimi cautioned: "It's still early to talk about ratifying the law, because we are awaiting the electoral commission's interpretation of the agreement."

Officials said the Kurds, in particular the party of Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, appeared to be the last major bloc to sign on to the agreement. Hadi al-Amiri, a Shiite lawmaker who has played a key role in the negotiations, said Kurdish officials promised an answer to the compromise by Saturday. "I believe we are very, very close to sealing the deal," he said.

But Fouad Masoum, a senior Kurdish lawmaker who agreed in a meeting Friday to bring the compromise to Barzani, did not give any timetable. "I'm going to go back to my leadership for the final word," he said.

The original legislation was passed Nov. 8, but Hashimi, one of three members of Iraq's Presidency Council, each with the power of veto, rejected the measure. He said it gave too little representation to millions of Iraqi exiles, many of them Sunni Arabs.

Parliament amended the legislation this week in a way that apparently backfired 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 under the original measure. Kurds would receive more seats than originally allotted.

The deal remained tentative, and although it had few details, it was aimed at restoring the Sunni Arab seats, while allowing the Kurds to keep the gains allowed under the amended version. Under the proposal, the number of seats in parliament would increase from 317 to 325.

Officials said they were awaiting answers from the electoral commission on how to implement the agreement. Election officials said the proposal might require lawmakers to again amend the legislation.

Parliament is not scheduled to reconvene until Dec. 8.

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