BAGHDAD — After months of infighting, Iraq's parliament passed a crucial law Wednesday that will allow most of the country to hold provincial elections early next year.
The law is seen as a key step toward bringing under-represented groups back into Iraqi politics, particularly Sunnis in Anbar province who have recently turned against violence and al Qaida extremists.
The United States and the United Nations have been urging Iraqi politicians for months to agree on a law, hoping that holding elections soon will help solidify recent, tenuous security gains here.
A contentious debate over who will control Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city, was the main sticking point delaying an agreement. Legislators didn't resolve that issue Wednesday and instead set it aside for later.
Still, the passage of the law means that elections to choose provincial and local leaders in most of Iraq can move forward. U.N. officials, who will organize the vote, vowed that country will be ready for balloting by the end of January.
Only elections in Kirkuk will be postponed.
Though Kirkuk is now populated by Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, Kurdish officials argue the city belongs to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous northern region of Iraq that borders Turkey, Iran and Syria. Kirkuk is historically Kurdish, but under Saddam Hussein, the government forced out the Kurds and repopulated the city with Arabs. After the U.S. invasion, Kurds pushed Arabs from the city.
Sunni Arab and Turkomen legislators had proposed sharing power with Kurds in Kirkuk, fearing that they will lose a stake in the city and its enormous oil wealth if regular elections are held there.
To allow voting to move forward elsewhere, legislators agreed Wednesday to form a parliamentary committee that would review the Kirkuk dispute. The committee is to make its recommendations by March 31, and the parliament will then decide how to deal with the city.
Legislators set a deadline for elections in the rest of the country by the end of January.
To become law, Iraq's three-man presidency council, headed by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, must approve the elections measure. Parliament passed an elections law earlier this year that called for power sharing among Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds, which the presidency council quickly rejected.
Staffan de Mistura, the special representative for Iraq for the U.N. Secretary General, congratulated parliament after the vote, calling Wednesday "a good day for Iraq and a good day for democracy."
"It's been a very delicate issue and it's taken a lot of time, but the outcome is what matters," de Mistura said. "We will work for a process that is fair for minorities. It's not going to be easy because it's a complicated issue, but you've already been doing complicated things and we are here to help you."
In a written statement, President Bush praised parliament. "Nothing is more central to a functioning democracy than free and fair elections," the statement said. "Today's action demonstrates the ability of Iraq's leaders to work together for the good of the Iraqi people and represents further progress on political reconciliation."
However, Tania Talat, a Kurdish member of parliament, said the election law is a blow to the people of Kirkuk, adding that she only agreed to it because it was the right choice for the rest of Iraq.
"The biggest loser in this is Kirkuk," Talat said. "The people of Kirkuk should be allowed to vote without limits, as everyone else will. We will just have to wait to see what the committee's report says."
The committee that will take up the Kirkuk issue will include Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Christians from both parliament and the Kirkuk city council. It won't include anyone from the Kurdistan regional government, as Kurds had sought.
Wednesday's vote follows months of bitter fighting among parliament members that at points sent Kurdish leaders storming out of session.
What pushed the majority of Iraq's legislators to finally agree on a law was not immediately clear.
Regardless, most hailed the vote as a reason to celebrate. "We wrote what the Iraqi people wanted, not what the politicians wanted," parliament speaker Mahmoud al Mashhadani said. "This is important."
Ahmed Ubaidi, an Arab member of Kirkuk's city council, said he welcomes the new law and will help the Kirkuk committee to do its job.
"We hope to have the committee here soon to lift all the trespassing that has taken place in Kirkuk," he said.
Aside from the Kirkuk issue, the law passed Wednesday calls for a committee that will work with the UN to figure out how to achieve representation for Christians and other minorities on the provincial councils.
The measure also specifies that a quarter of council representatives must be women and that no campaign materials can be posted in government buildings, mosques or churches.
With the election law decided, parliament will turn next to the tasks of adopting legislation governing the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth and the role Islam should play in country's government.
In other news on Wednesday in Iraq, gunmen ambushed and 27 international policemen and eight anti-al Qaida fighters in Diyala province. Three high-ranking officers were among the dead, police officials said.
(Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim, Jenan Hussein and Yassen Taha contributed to this article.)
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