Iraq approves election law
BAGHDAD – Iraq’s bickering politicians finally agreed on a new election law Sunday, paving the way for crucial national elections to take place in January and for the drawdown of U.S. troops to proceed as scheduled.
Parliament’s passage of the law came so late the election now cannot be held as had been planned on January 16, said U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, and would likely be moved to January 23. But that is well within the end-of-January deadline mandated by Iraq’s constitution, and he said the short delay would make no difference to the U.S. military’s plans to bring all combat troops home by the end of August.
“What is significant about the date … in January is that the troops can be drawn down on schedule,” Hill told reporters in a conference call after the vote in Iraq’s parliament. “We can achieve the January time frame and the responsible drawdown as expected.”
The protracted deadlock over the new law had raised concerns about the stability of Iraq’s fledgling democracy, and the ability of Iraqi politicians to resolve the many unresolved issues that may still confront them once U.S. combat troops have gone, including the thorny issue of the contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which proved the biggest obstacle to the new law.
In Washington, President Barack Obama hailed the agreement as “an important milestone” for Iraq.
“This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq, and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September,” Obama said.
U.S. commanders have tied the pullout to the election because they want to be sure Iraq is stable before the troops start to leave in significant numbers. General Ray Odierno, the overall commander, is to make an assessment of security conditions 60 days after the poll before giving the final word on whether the withdrawal will go ahead under the planned timetable. A residual force of 50,000 is due to remain behind until the end of 2011 to train Iraqi troops and provide logistical support.
The long and sometimes stormy impasse nonetheless demonstrated the deep divisions that still threaten to tear Iraq apart, notably over the long-contested province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs.
The biggest snag concerned the issue of how voting would proceed in Kirkuk, whose population has been swelled in recent years by an influx of Kurds claiming to be reversing the policy of Arabization undertaken by Saddam Hussein.
Arabs and Turkomans allege the Kurdish immigration has far exceeded the numbers expelled by Saddam, as Kurds seek to boost their claims to ownership of the province. The Arabs and Turkomans sought special redress in the law for the imbalance, while Kurds were insisting there should be no special arrangements for the northern province.
In the end, the factions came up with a compromise formula under which all registered voters in Kirkuk will be eligible to vote, but a special committee will spend the year after the election reviewing voter rolls in Kirkuk and other “suspect” provinces to see whether there are irregularities.
Another clause in the law provide for Iraqis to be able to select individual candidates when casting their ballots. The provision will make this election more transparent than the last national poll in 2005, when Iraqis could only vote for parties and had no say in who the candidates were.