Iraqi minorities 'insulted' by new provincial assemblies law

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi parliament approved legislation Monday that allocates six seats in provinces to small ethnic and religious communities in the upcoming provincial elections, but Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks asked for the law to be overturned on the grounds that they remained underrepresented.

A similar provision guaranteeing minority representation in provincial councils was taken out of the recent provincial elections law before it passed. This time, the parliament chose from three proposals and passed the one that gives religious or ethnic communities the least representation: one seat for Christians in each of three provinces — Baghdad, Nineveh and Basra — and one seat each for Yazidis, Sabeans and Shabaks in various provinces.

"They failed in the examination of democracy," said Yonadam Kanna, a Christian from the Assyrian Democratic Movement. "This was a result of the conflict between Kurds and Arabs."

Kanna was referring to Nineveh province, where Christians had hoped for three seats, Yazidis three seats and the Shabaks one seat. Arabs worry that the minorities could become extensions of the Kurdish parties that dominate the provincial council in the mostly Arab Sunni Muslim province.

"The Arab nationalists think that the minorities will side with the Kurds, which is not true," Kanna said. A United Nations proposal would have given the minorities a total of 12 seats, including three seats for Christians in Baghdad and one in the oil-rich city of Basra. Sabeans, a very small religious minority in the south, would have received one seat in Baghdad.

Instead, 106 legislators voted for the amendment that awarded six seats. Kurds, the minorities and legislators who follow radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr voted for the U.N. proposal.

Kanna called the passage of the law an insult to minorities. By Monday night, representatives of the minority communities formally asked the presidency council to reject the legislation, Kanna said. Christians are estimated to represent about 3 percent of the Iraqi population, or about 800,000 people, but there are no clear census data in Iraq.

"Getting nothing is better than this insult," he said.

After the article that gave a quota of seats to minorities was removed from the provincial elections law, Christian and other minority communities across the country had protested.

Legislators who voted for the amendment Monday said that they'd voted for what they thought was fair.

"If we give seats for them and seats for the women, then why do we have our constitution and elections?" said Ali al Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker from the Dawa party, explaining his choice for the smallest quota. "This will satisfy everyone."

As Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki opened an Islamic-Christian conference of religious leaders with praise for Iraq's multi-ethnic and religious community, the minority community worried that it would always lose to the majority.

"Iraq should remain the country that lives peacefully together among religions, ethnicities and sects," Maliki said. "We should benefit from the mixed populations that we have that give us the power, strength and steadiness to spread the culture of dialogue in the face of strife and challenges."

Kanna saw the opposite as the reality, however. Referring to the new law, he said: "We were the victims among the radicals and fanatics."

(McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)


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