Iraqi vote on minorities marks step to elections

BAGHDAD: Parliament approved legislation Monday restoring guaranteed seats on provincial councils to Christians and other small religious communities, the last major hurdle to holding provincial elections next year.

But the version that won approval granted only one seat to Christians on the councils of the provinces of Baghdad, Ninevah and Basra. Other seats went to small religious groups — Yazidis, Shabaks and Sabeans.

Two other versions, one of them put forward by the U.N., would have allocated more seats to Christians in Baghdad and Ninevah provinces.

“The result indicates that there is a religious and nationalist fanaticism,” said Christian lawmaker Younadem Kana. “This law as it stands is an insult to the communities rather than being fair to them.”

The bill, which was approved by 106 of the 150 lawmakers who attended the session, now goes to the presidential council for approval. Kana demanded that the council, which includes the president and two vice presidents, veto the measure “We reject the seat, and want to go back to being first class citizens,” Kana said.

In September, parliament approved a new law mandating elections for ruling provincial councils in most of Iraq’s 18 provinces — the first such ballot since January 2005. But the law removed a system that reserved a few seats for Christians and other religious minorities.

Lawmakers cited a lack of census data to determine what the quotas should be. Thousands of Christians have fled the country since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the rise of Islamic extremist groups.

But many Christians saw the parliament’s move as an effort to marginalize their community and demanded supplemental legislation restoring their seats.

The election commission had urged parliament to approve the supplemental bill this week so that the provincial balloting could be held as planned by Jan. 31.