BAGHDAD -- After three days of long sessions and continuous delays, the Iraqi parliament failed Wednesday to reach agreement on a new election law, asked a little-used national political council to resolve the impasse and adjourned until Sunday.
The speaker of the parliament, Dr. Ayad al Samarrai, said at a news conference that the parliament had resolved 90 percent of what he called obstacles -- including allowing Iraqis to vote directly for individual candidates, not just party lists --but that lawmakers remained deadlocked over how January's scheduled parliamentary elections should be conducted in oil-rich northern Kirkuk province.
The impasse over how Kirkuk, where Kurdish Sunni Muslims have relocated in large numbers to reverse the late dictator Saddam Hussein's campaign to populate it with Sunni Arabs, should be represented in the parliament could delay the elections, and the Obama administration's plan to accelerate a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
A speedier withdrawal is essential to any plan to send more than 35,000 or so additional American troops to Afghanistan.
Samarrai referred the issue Wednesday to Iraq's Political Council for National Security, which includes Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and the leaders of the parliament's political blocs. Maliki has been visiting the U.S., however, so it's unclear how quickly the council could convene or the parliament could vote on a compromise, if the council can negotiate one.
Ali al Adeeb, a prominent leader in the Shiite Dawa party, didn't show great enthusiasm for referring the matter to the council, saying that its leaders are already members of the parliament.
"The decision was made by the parliament presidency board, not by the lawmakers," he said. "Some members consider it illegal, because the Political Council for National Security is not (a legal entity), and its decisions are not compulsory."
Adeeb told McClatchy in a phone call that the Kirkuk issue is the main problem with the new law. He added that Arab and Turkomen want to use 2004 voter records, because those after the 2005 election reflect a large increase in the province's Kurdish population. The Kurdish bloc in the parliament, however, wants the province's representation to reflect that increase, which Kurds argue merely reverses Saddam's "Arabization" campaign.
Hashim al Ta'i, a member of Tawafuq, the main Sunni bloc in the parliament, said he thought that sending the issue to the political council was a good step because the political blocs couldn't find a solution.
"Sending the law to the political council will save time in discussing the disputed point and the parliament still have the right to approve or disapprove the decision of the council," he said.
Fawzi Akram, a lawmaker from the Shiite bloc led by radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, accused the Kurds of trying to delay approval of the new law.
"Kirkuk is the first and the last point of disagreement," he said. "The Sadrist bloc, the Turkomen and Tawafuq bloc presented many suggestions to solve the Kirkuk issue, but they were all rejected by the Kurds."
Arab and Turkomen lawmakers want to treat Kirkuk differently from other provinces in the coming election, but Kurdish lawmakers want its representation to reflect its current ethnic makeup, as in other provinces.
"If we want to check the voters' records in Kirkuk and the changes that have happened to it, we should also talk about the records in Mosul, Salahuddin, Diyala and even Baghdad," said Abdul Khaliq Zangana, a lawmaker from the Kurdish coalition.
Zangana called referring the election law to the political council an indication "of lack of responsibility in the parliament."
(Hammoudi and Hussein are McClatchy special correspondents.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq