August 6, 2008

Iraqi Parliament Adjourns Without Setting Elections

BAGHDAD _ After weeks of late-night negotiations and under intense U.S. pressure, Iraqi lawmakers failed to pass a much-debated provincial elections law Wednesday before adjourning for the month.

The failure to pass the law, which would govern elections in provinces across the country, may push the elections into next year. If elections don't happen by the end of this year, it could be July before the balloting could be carried out, U.N. spokesman Said Arikat said.

Elections originally were scheduled for October of this year.

The latest move by parliament underscores the great divide between security and political progress in Iraq. While violence is at a record low, progress on the political front is lagging as sectarian blocs wrangle over each divisive issue to come before the parliament.

Parliament also has yet to pass a law to share oil revenue or to amend the constitution on such issues as the role of Islam and the nature of federalism in the government. With deep religious and ethnic divisions, members have opted to deal with such issues by putting them off.

The most recent impasse came over the issue of Kirkuk, which sits atop rich oil fields in the north of the country.

In July, parliament passed an earlier version of the provincial elections law after a secret vote that included the now-infamous Article 24, which demanded an equal share of power in Kirkuk, a mixed city of Turkomen, Arabs and Kurds that's long been the center of a bitter demographic rivalry. Dictator Saddam Hussein had forced Kurds from their homes in Kirkuk and replaced them with Arabs. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Kurds have been the ones forcing Arabs from their homes, to reverse the ethnic purge of the city.

After the provincial elections law passed last month, thousands of Kurds protested in Kirkuk, and the demonstration turned bloody when a bomb killed at least 25 people.

Kurdish lawmakers and their allies stormed out of the session when the law passed, calling it unconstitutional. Arabs have long been weary of Kurdish desires to annex oil-rich Tamim province, which is home to Kirkuk, into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

The presidency council rejected the law after President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, criticized it.

Then the United States and United Nations got involved, scurrying for a solution so that the elections could proceed. After a plethora of United Nations proposals to amend the article in question, they finally suggested that legislators pass the law while postponing elections in Tamim province until December 2009. During the delay, the parliament would pass a separate elections law for Tamim.

Even that couldn't be agreed on, however. First the Kurds opposed it, and when they later agreed, the Turkomen and some Arab parties _ including the opposition Sadr movement _ flipped their positions.

"We haven't taken one step forward, not one step," said Bassem Sharif al Hajeemi, a Shiite Muslim legislator from the Fadhila party who opposed the recent U.N. proposal.

Some legislators charged that the Kirkuk issue was being used to mask political blocs' opposition to the bill, because new elections might dethrone them in the provinces. The most powerful Sunni Muslim party in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls the Sunni provinces, may lose all its provincial power in the next elections to the now popular Awakening movement, which is credited with driving the Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq out of Sunni towns.

The political blocs will keep negotiating until parliament resumes in September.

"There was an agreement that negotiations will continue between the representatives between political blocs," said Fouad Maasoum, the head of parliament's Kurdish bloc.

The law will be finished when the parliament meets again, he said.

"This is normal, to reach to common points and then there's another entity that rejects them," Maasoum said. "This is all normal. It happens."


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