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Iraq Approves Minorities Bill Despite Christian Protest

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's president and two vice presidents approved a bill on November 8 that guarantees local council seats for Christians and other minorities, though minority groups complained it gave them too few seats.

The bill gives the minorities a quota of six out of a total of 440 provincial council seats to be elected by January 31.

The decision to approve the bill was made despite strong opposition from Christians and other minority groups, who visited Iraqi officials in recent days to push for more seats. The United Nations had suggested they should get 12.

"We completely reject this approval. This appeases the ethnic and religious ignorance of the parliament," Yunadim Kanna, one of the few Christian members of parliament, told Reuters. "It is a disappointment and depressing to Christians in Iraq. It is deeply regrettable."

But the Presidency Council, which includes President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and his two vice presidents, a Sunni Arab and a Shi'ite, said the main issue was that minorities get a quota, rather than its size.

"The most important thing that has been achieved in all these talks is the right of minorities through fixed seats," it said in a statement.

Kanna and other Iraqi Christian leaders estimate their number at 750,000 out of Iraq's 28 million people. The country is also home to thousands of Yazidis, Shabaks, and members of other minority sects.

Precise numbers are difficult to verify because there has been no census since 1997 and many Iraqis have fled.

The council said it had reached its decision after talking to Christian and other minority groups, and a Vatican diplomat. The council also said it would propose a draft law to protect the "future rights" of minorities, without giving details.

Parliament initially passed the provincial election law with no seats set aside for minorities, but added the quota in a separate bill last week.

Iraq's government is expected to announce a date soon for the provincial elections, which must be held by January 31 and are seen as crucial for sectarian and ethnic reconciliation.

The polls will select council members to run 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. They could reshape Iraqi politics if Sunni Arabs and members of some Shi'ite groups, many of whom stayed home during the last polls in 2005, come out in force.

The plight of Iraqi Christians was highlighted last month when 1,500 families fled attacks or intimidation in the northern city of Mosul, although many have since returned.