Iraqis pass election law crucial to U.S. withdrawal plans

BAGHDAD — After nearly a dozen delays and a final, rowdy session, Iraq's parliament on Sunday passed a law setting national elections for January, averting for now a political crisis that threatened to unravel the country's slow progress toward stability.

Approval of the law eases a growing source of concern for the Obama administration. President Barack Obama is considering sending 34,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and successful elections here are key to a major reduction in U.S. combat forces in Iraq by next summer.

The elections, now scheduled for Jan. 23, had been held up by an explosive dispute over the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, where both Arabs and Kurds claim a majority. Lawmakers resolved the disagreement for now by agreeing to use voter rolls from 2009, and not a 2004 voter list compiled before many Kurds had moved into the region.

The lawmakers also resolved another key issue: how to list candidates on the ballot. Under the new law, candidates will be listed by name — a so-called open list — and not by party affiliation, a "closed list" in which voters do not know who the individual candidates are. The decision to use an open list will make it more difficult for religious-based parties to win support.

"Today we have been able to achieve one of the most sought-after points regarding the elections and that is the open list. And it is a grand day for Kirkuk. It will not be deprived of its right in national elections," said Khalid Shwani, a Kurdish lawmaker and prominent figure in negotiations over the law.

"Of course there were many compromises. No one can reach an accord without making some concessions," said parliament member Fawzi Akram, from Iraq's Turkomen minority.

Iraqi and U.S. officials expressed relief Sunday.

"This is good news. This is an achievement for all Iraqis, and for the political process," said Sadiq al Rikabi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

U.S. ambassador Chris Hill and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, issued a statement congratulating the Iraqis.

Hill, in a conference call with reporters, said that, for now, the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq could proceed as planned next year. "Had these deliberations gone on, some new decisions would have had to be made" about U.S. troop withdrawals, he said. "We knew that a crucial element of the schedule was that we were able to be here in strength through the election."

The Kirkuk issue, which generates deep emotions among Iraq's Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, had repeatedly stymied efforts to pass the law.

Many Kurds were expelled from the area under Saddam Hussein, but have returned since the March 2003 U.S. invasion — in numbers that other Iraqis say exceed their previous population. The decision to use voter registration lists from 2009 was a victory for the Kurds.

The dispute, however, was only postponed, not resolved.

The law set up a fact-finding committee to examine voter lists in Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and compare them with 2004 versions. The panel is to complete its work in a year, long after the national elections, potentially setting up another stand-off.

The days leading up to the final vote showed how Iraqi officials, after years of sectarian violence, still struggle between defending their ethnic or religious group and representing the interests of the country as a whole.

Sunday's final session was raucous, with lawmakers shouting and a few storming out of the session. One of the most contentious issues was whether internally displaced Iraqis, who number as many as 2.5 million, could cast votes in their former home regions. In the end, it was decided they could not.

As late as Sunday afternoon, it was still uncertain lawmakers would pass the bill after so many failed attempts.

"There have been nine sessions in which we failed to reach any results - this is the tenth, inshallah (God willing) it will be the last," said Salim al Juburi, a spokesman for the main Sunni bloc in parliament.

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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