By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 7, 2009; A10
BAGHDAD -- In a last-minute compromise reached under heavy U.S. pressure, Iraqi lawmakers on Sunday approved a law on seat distribution for the upcoming parliamentary election.
The vote appeared to resolve an impasse that threatened to delay the election beyond the expiration of the current government and force the U.S. military to slow down the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Minutes before midnight, the deadline for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to veto the election law, lawmakers hurried into parliament and voted on the deal.
"The crisis is over," Omar al-Mashadani, a spokesman for speaker Ayad al-Samarraie, said late Sunday.
Lawmakers have been wrangling over seat distribution for weeks.
Hashemi vetoed the original law passed Nov. 8, arguing that Iraqi refugees, most of whom are Sunni, would be disenfranchised.
Kurds also decried the law, saying non-Kurdish provinces had gotten a disproportionate number of seats in the new parliament, which will expand from the current 275 seats to 325.
Over the objection of Sunnis, a coalition of Shiites and Kurds passed an amended law on Nov. 23 that gave Kurds additional seats. The amended law left Sunnis in a weaker position and appeared to set the stage for the disenfranchisement of Sunnis, most of whom boycotted the election in 2005 over similar concerns..
But last week, U.N. and U.S. diplomats brokered a seat distribution deal that Sunnis accepted.
Under the proposal, seats were distributed according to population data from 2005, accounting for a nationwide 2.8 percent population increase.
The deal includes eight at-large seats for Christians and other minorities and seven additional at-large seats that the top vote getters will distribute.
As part of the deal, the votes of Iraqis overseas will be counted in their province of origin.
Hashimi said he was pleased by the outcome.
"The past 12 days have made our democratic process stronger," the vice president said in a phone interview with an Iraqi television station. "This outcome will change Iraq from a sectarian state to a civilized state."
But other Sunnis were critical of the end result, and of the vice president's decision to boycott the original law.
"This law is the best among bad solutions," said Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah, who criticized the vice president. "He believed he was protecting the rights of the displaced people but he ended up giving the Kurds more seats."
Kurds, who held out hope of securing additional seats until minutes before the vote, caved under heavy U.S. pressure, according to lawmakers and other officials familiar with the negotiations.
Kamal Kirkuki, the speaker of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the three provinces that make up the autonomous Kurdish region deserved 48 seats.
Shiite and Sunni leaders refused and American officials told the Kurds they were overreaching, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
"This agreement was imposed on us through heavy pressure from the White House," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. "They want elections at any cost."
Lawmakers did not announce a new election date, but U.N. officials have suggested that the vote be held Feb. 27.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.