IRAQ: At long last, an election date

iraqelect1.jpgAmid the drama over the Iraqi Cabinet’s decision to approve a security pact giving American forces another three years on the ground here, it was easy to miss another milestone. The Cabinet has formally announced the date for provincial elections: Jan. 31, 2009.

The decision, announced Tuesday, is the first time a date has been declared. The provincial election law passed by Parliament in September only said that the vote should be held by Jan. 31 but left in the air exactly when it would happen. This gives the country’s political groups time to get ready for the official two-month campaigning period, which will begin Dec. 1. With luck and organization, it will give election officials time to arrange what is sure to be a massive undertaking.

The term “provincial election” might not sound sexy to many people, but here in Iraq, the elections have been eagerly awaited and are seen as perhaps the best way to revamp the country’s skewed political structures and some of the sectarianism that has bedeviled the country. Their outcome could determine the state of the nation that U.S. troops leave behind when President-elect Barack Obama is in office and his plan to draw down forces takes hold.

The last provincial elections were held in 2005, and Sunni Arab groups boycotted them. That left many provinces, even those with substantial Sunni populations, governed by councils dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

The length of time needed to pass the election law is indicative of the passion surrounding the issue. The elections originally were envisioned for last Oct. 1, and Parliament spent much of the summer trying to come up with a bill organizing the vote that would be acceptable to all political blocs. Their first attempt failed when, in July, a bill passed Parliament but was vetoed by the three-member Presidency Council over issues stemming from Kurdish and Sunni Arab tensions in northern Iraq. Those tensions have yet to be resolved, so the renegotiated election law includes a provision that voting will be delayed in three northern provinces.

Unlike in 2005, Sunnis are expected to take part in the 2009 election, but some of the country’s diverse ethnic and religious minorities remain unhappy with the election plan. In particular, Christians, Yazidis and other small groups say they were cheated when Parliament determined their quota of seats. The United Nations’ special representative in Iraq had recommended 12 seats to be spread across the country’s provincial councils for Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Sabians. The formula approved by Parliament earlier this month grants a total of just six seats to the groups.

The minority groups say they need guaranteed seats to prevent their voices from being drowned out by bigger groups. They also say they have been caught in the middle of the turf wars being waged in northern Ninevah province between Sunni Arabs and Kurds vying for influence in the region. This month, Iraq and U.S. officials said gunmen killed two Christian women in the northern city of Mosul, which has witnessed the worst violence against minority groups.

Earlier this year, Archbishop Paulos Farraj Rahho was abducted in Mosul and later found dead.

A leading Christian parliamentarian, Yonoudem Kana, said the scarcity of seats for minority groups was a sign of bigger groups’ desires to crush minorities. “If there will be no change in this position, we will have no choice but to boycott the elections,” he said after the quota system was adopted