Christians in Iraq demand quotas

BAGHDAD: A senior Iraqi lawmaker called Monday for an urgent resolution to Christian demands for a minority quota system in provincial elections, while the electoral commission ruled out holding them this year.

Parliament approved a law last month paving the way for elections to provincial councils after months of deadlock but dropped a quota system in place in 6 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, citing a lack of census data on how many Christians, Yazidis and members of other religions were still in those areas.

The deputy speaker of Parliament, Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, said one option would be to use outdated prewar census data to come up with a different formula. “No political bloc in Parliament has the intention of denying small ethnic minorities their constitutional rights,” he said at a news conference. “There is an urgent need to solve this matter.”

Dozens of Christians protested over the issue at a rally near a church in Baghdad, saying that dropping the quota would marginalize their community, which accounts for an estimated 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.

“We do not want to immigrate to the U.S. or Britain – we want to stay in Iraq and have our representatives in both the provincial councils and the legislature,” said the Reverend Louis al-Shabi, a preacher at a Chaldean church in Baghdad. “We want to be treated equally as Iraqis living with the Muslims and other nationals in a united brotherly spirit.”

The issue has threatened to overshadow preparations for the vote for provincial councils throughout Iraq.

Faraj al-Haidari, head of Iraq’s independent electoral commission, said that it would not be possible to hold the vote this year as had been hoped but that the commission would do its best to meet a legal deadline of Jan. 31.

Haidari said that there was not enough time to finish preparations for the elections before year’s end and that the dispute over the quota system was complicating matters.

“It is definitely impossible to hold the elections this year,” Haidari said in a telephone interview from Beirut. He said the date for the vote would be announced within two weeks.

In preparation, the independent elections commission will start registering candidates and political blocs on Oct. 15, he said. Officials also need to update voter lists, design the ballot papers and attend to other technicalities, he added.

The vote, which U.S. officials hope will promote national unity and stem support for violence, had initially been scheduled to be held in October.