Iraqis at the brink: Election law delayed again

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Iraqi lawmakers blew another deadline Thursday as they continued haggling over an election law that's crucial to the country's political stability and to the Obama administration's plans for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops.

At one point Thursday, it appeared that Iraq's Council of Representatives had reached a compromise on the main point of contention: how the oil-rich, ethnically tense province of Kirkuk should be represented in the Iraqi parliament. No deal was reached with the parliament, however, and action was put off until at least Saturday.

The dispute among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen threatens to paralyze Iraq's brittle democracy.

"We are in a crisis," said lawmaker Hassan al Sined, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "It's a narrow space, but we have to get the train through."

The standoff is jeopardizing plans for national elections in mid-January, as well as the timetable for an orderly drawdown of the 120,000 U.S. troops here, even as President Barack Obama weighs sending tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan.

As the Thursday deadline passed, like others before it, the head of Iraq's elections commission, Faraj al Haidari, said the polls could still be organized if the elections law were passed Saturday. Earlier this week, he'd said that Thursday was the cutoff date.

Postponing the elections would throw Iraq into limbo, and could lead to deepening violence.

The standoff is a matter of growing concern for the U.S., which is attempting to use its influence here, particularly with the Kurds. Vice President Joe Biden called Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the speaker of Iraq's parliament this week to urge a compromise, Iraqi officials said.

Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, has been a flash point for decades, and efforts to resolve its status have been put off repeatedly over the past five years.

The late dictator Saddam Hussein drove thousand of Kurds out of Kirkuk and surrounding areas and encouraged Sunni Muslim Arabs to settle there in an attempt to "Arabize" the strategic area. Since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam, Kurdish leaders have encouraged a reverse population flow.

Now Kurdish representatives want the national elections conducted using voter rolls from this year's provincial elections, which reflect the growth in the region's Kurdish population. Arab lawmakers dispute the accuracy of the 2009 lists, and complain that the Kurds have rejected every attempt at compromise.

"The Kurds are practicing a ... policy of 'the edge' or 'the cliff,' " Thafir al Ani, a lawmaker from the main Sunni parliamentary bloc, said in an interview. "They want to take things to the last point."

The compromise, based on a proposal by United Nations mediators, would give an extra seat each in parliament to an Arab lawmaker and a representative of Iraq's Turkomen minority. It would use the 2009 voter lists, but would provide for an audit to check their accuracy.

While Iraqi political deadlines have proved to be extremely flexible, it appears impossible logistically to hold an election if the rules aren't settled by the middle of November.

Senior U.S. officials in Washington predicted that a deal would be struck eventually, but, in typically Iraqi fashion, only at the last possible minute or a few minutes beyond.

Some lawmakers struck a note of optimism Thursday.

"We have reached an agreement that makes everybody win, and no one would lose. The political blocs basically accepted it, and on Saturday we should get out of this black tunnel," said Abbas al Bayati, who's a Shiite Muslim.

On Thursday, however, the parliament couldn't even muster a quorum to debate the issue.

"We have a quorum, but in the cafeteria, not in the parliament," Sined said.

(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)

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