Iraq passes provincial elections law

BAGHDAD: After months of negotiation, Iraq’s Parliament passed a crucial election law on Wednesday, but only by setting aside for future debate the most divisive political issues.

The law could clear the way for provincial elections to take place in much of the country early next year. The elections are viewed by many Iraqi and American officials as crucial for the nation to heal its deep-running political and religious fissures and also to shore up the fragile security gains that have been achieved in recent months.

The question of how to settle a fierce dispute over control of the ethnically mixed and oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, however, was given to a committee for further study. And an article in an earlier version of the law that provided a limited number of provincial council seats for Iraq’s Christians and other minorities was eliminated from the new bill, stirring outrage among the groups.

Still, the bill’s passage represents a significant achievement for a country that has more often resorted to violence than political negotiation in resolving its differences.

The elections are likely to result in broader political representation in many parts of Iraq. And they will be watched closely for what they might forecast for the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2009.

The law still must be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by President Jalal Talabani.

“We have written what the Iraqi people want, not what the Iraqi politicians want,” said Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the speaker of the Parliament, referring to the new legislation.

The elections would be the first in almost four years. Lawmakers had hoped that they would be held in October, but negotiations over the law encountered one roadblock after another.

In July, Talabani, a Kurd, vetoed an earlier version of the legislation after it was passed by Parliament. And in early August, the Parliament recessed for a summer break without passing the law because of stalled negotiations over the Kirkuk issue.

It took weeks of talks, brokered by the United Nations, for the Parliament to reach agreement on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, President George W. Bush, who had made telephone calls this summer to Iraqi politicians urging them to pass the legislation, said, “Today’s action demonstrates the ability of Iraq’s leaders to work together for the good of the Iraqi people and represents further progress on political reconciliation.

“Nothing is more central to a functioning democracy than free and fair elections,” he said.

The struggle over Kirkuk, where Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Christians and other groups have all staked claims, has been among the central obstacles to unifying Iraq. Government officials in the Kurdish region in the north insist that Kirkuk rightfully belongs to them. Sunni Arab and Turkmen lawmakers have proposed a power-sharing agreement to govern the city.

Under the new bill, passed unanimously by the 190 members of Parliament present, a committee made up of representatives from the major groups involved in the Kirkuk dispute will take up the question and present recommendations by March 31. The election in Kirkuk is to be postponed, and the current provincial council would remain in place until a separate election law for the province could be passed.

Elections in the three provinces of the Kurdish region, an autonomous territory, will be held in 2009.

Sa’adaldin Arkij, head of the Turkmen Front political party, called the passage of the election law “a historical victory for Iraqis.”

“Today there was no winner and no loser, but Iraq won,” he said. “Kirkuk is not an easy issue, and the agreement is a confirmation of Iraqis’ awareness and responsibility for unity in their country.”

The new law eliminates an article that, in an earlier version, had provided 13 seats in six provinces for Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other minorities — a move that Younadim Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and the only Christian member of Parliament said was “a very, very bad sign.

“We really were disappointed,” Kanna said, adding that he could “sense disaster” in the Parliament’s action.

“It seems they are confiscating the free will of the minorities and trying to impose their own puppets to represent” them, he said.

In a news conference held on Wednesday, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special representative to Iraq, called the passage of the election law “a good day for Iraq, a day for democracy,” but he added that the minority issue was a “dark cloud.”

“We have heard your voice,” he said, speaking of the minorities. “We have heard your concern, and it is the right concern.”
Mashadani, also speaking at the news conference, said that the United Nations would work with Iraq’s electoral commission to develop a plan to give minorities a share in the political process.

Other parts of the election law specify that 25 percent of the council representatives must be women — a stipulation that was hailed by Ala al-Talabani, a member of Parliament, as “a victory for the Iraqi woman” — and place restrictions on the use of religious imagery in political campaigns.

Voting in the remaining provinces will take place by Jan. 31, according to the bill.

The delays in the election law appeared to serve the interest of politicians who held power and feared they would lose seats to rival parties when the polling took place. In Anbar Province, for example, the Iraqi Islamic Party has dominated the provincial council but has little grass-roots support there. The party is widely expected to lose ground to the tribally based Awakening Councils, whose leaders have said they will compete in elections once they are held.

Similarly, the two main Shiite parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, have dominated most provincial councils in the south, but are expected to lose some ground to political forces aligned with the Shiite rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Riyadh Mohammed, Atheer Kakan and Mohammed Hussein contributed reporting.