BAGHDAD -- Up against the clock, Iraqi politicians spent Wednesday hammering out the final sticking points of an election law they hope to present to parliament for a vote within days to avoid a risky and embarrassing delay of the January polls.
How to handle the oil-rich city of Kirkuk remains the key snag, several Iraqi officials said. The debate now hinges on whether election administrators will count voters based on the city's 2009 population, which would favor Kurds, or include residents from 2004, which would boost Arab representation in the divided city.
A senior aide to the speaker of parliament said there was serious talk of bringing the issue to a vote Thursday, despite the opposition of Kurdish politicians, who seek more time to ensure their interests are addressed.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, added to the pressure Wednesday with a public demand to incorporate Kirkuk into his semiautonomous region.
"We will not accept any (other) solution for Kirkuk," Barzani said at the swearing-in of a new Kurdish regional government. "We want it to be annexed to our region because the majority of its population are Kurds."
Timetables set forth by the Iraqi Constitution and the electoral commission make it imperative that an election deal be reached soon. The original deadline was Oct. 15, and there's concern that even a rushed agreement won't leave enough time for election officials to approve candidates, oversee the campaign and ensure voters have enough information before they head to the polls.
Smooth elections are also important for the Obama administration, which had hoped to withdraw most U.S. military forces by next summer and leave Iraq in the care of a newly elected government. A political standoff could leave the country vulnerable to more insurgent attacks, such as the devastating truck bombings that killed 155 people and wounded hundreds more last Sunday.
"We cannot wait forever for the election law to be passed, and we've said this to parliament," said Judge Qassim al Abboudi, a senior administrator on the elections commission. "But we have seen that there is a real effort to finalize the law. Kirkuk remains the issue. With the grace of God, they should have a final draft within the next few days, and within that time frame we will work night and day in order to make do with what time we have left."
Pushing for an outcome that angers either Arabs or Kurds could backfire, with riots of the sort that occurred after previous debates over election laws. Arabs insist on using the 2004 registry, but Kurds favor a U.N. proposal to use 2009 voter records for the January election until a broader resolution is reached.
Arab and Kurdish camps blamed each other Wednesday for delaying the election law.
Khalid Shwani, a Kurdish legislator, said the "rigidity and stubbornness" of his Arab counterparts were sinking hopes for a consensus. He said the 2009 census was the most accurate count of voters and that the Arabs were pushing to use older records in order to deny the reality of a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk after years of reversing the Saddam Hussein-era policy of "Arabization," which drove Kurds from the city to give it an Arab identity.
"These people, our brothers, call for the use of the 2004 census in order to reap political gains because it will give them the upper hand," Shwani said. "We have failed to reach an accord, and it is they who must bear the responsibility for that."
Sunni Muslim Arab legislators, however, charged that bias toward the Kurds was stalling progress, with the Shiite Muslim- and Sunni Kurd-dominated government throwing its weight behind a proposal that could disenfranchise some Arab voters in Kirkuk.
"In Iraq we've gotten used to resolving our issues by consensus, but if an accord can't be reached today, we will vote tomorrow," said Saleem al Jubouri, a spokesman for the main Sunni Arab political bloc. "Either we have an election law or we don't, (but) we must vote and the vote will be final."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Allam reported from Cairo, Egypt. Special correspondent Yaseen Taha contributed to this article from Irbil, Iraq.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq
McClatchy Newspapers 2009