Obama, Biden phoned Kurds to press Iraq election deal

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 7, 2009 

BAGHDAD — President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden intervened personally to save an agreement allowing Iraq's elections to proceed, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Monday, highlighting the stakes in the deal for an eventual American troop withdrawal.

In separate phone calls Sunday with Massoud Barzani, the powerful president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Obama and Biden persuaded him to withdraw the Kurds' objections to an elections law, Kurdish lawmakers said. Iraq's parliament approved the deal late Sunday in Baghdad, ending months of sectarian wrangling that have delayed the elections.

Iraqi lawmakers said the White House pledged to help deal with Kurdish concerns, particularly a swath of disputed territory that both Arabs and Kurds claim. Those promises appeared, however, to fall short of hard guarantees to solve the disputes clouding Iraq's future.

No final date has been set for the elections, but they're expected to take place around Feb. 27, about a month late.

"They pressed the Kurds to accept," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading independent Kurdish lawmaker. "That had an important effect in the Kurds accepting the resolution, in spite of it not being ideal" from their viewpoint, he said.

Last month, Barzani, who heads the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, had threatened a Kurdish boycott, saying the draft elections law didn't assign enough parliamentary seats to Kurdish regions.

It was one of numerous objections based on sectarian politics that stalled the law. The final deal gave three additional seats to the Kurds and reflected Sunni Muslims' demands for greater representation.

While Obama, who spoke with Barzani for 10 minutes, according to the White House, helped stave off another political crisis, their intervention raises anew questions about whether Iraqis can find consensus without constant prodding from outside.

With U.S. troops set to conduct major withdrawals beginning next spring, "It's a worry," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the private International Crisis Group.

"In the absence of an overarching political deal that would have to be brokered by the Americans" before the withdrawal, it's unclear what Iraqis can accomplish on their own, he said.

Biden is the president's point man on Iraq and, according to Hiltermann, has spoken with Barzani three times in recent months.

Obama's personal involvement was unusual, however, and it underscores the stakes in Iraq's convoluted and time-consuming politics. As he sends 30,000 to 35,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Obama wants to withdraw American combat forces from Iraq by next August in an atmosphere of political stability.

Iraqi lawmakers said the White House pledged to help implement an article of Iraq's Constitution that defines how to settle the disputed territories, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk. The president also promised support for a national census. Iraq hasn't had a complete census since 1987.

In a statement, the White House said simply that Obama and Biden "confirmed the U.S. commitment to a long-term relationship with Iraq, including the KRG," the Kurdistan Regional Government.

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad and Margaret Talev in Washington contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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