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Iraqi Lawmakers Approve Seats For Religious Minorities In '09 Polls

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) meets with Yunadim Kanna, a Christian member of parliament, last month.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's parliament has voted to guarantee religious minorities seats on provincial councils to be selected next year, but drew ire from Iraqi Christians by setting aside fewer spots than a UN proposal had urged.

The measure passed by 106 out of 150 lawmakers present give six provincial council seats, out of a total of 440 nationwide, to Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis, and others religious and ethnic groups who make up a small part of Iraq's 28 million mainly Muslim population.

Some parliamentatians said the vote fell short of a UN recommendation to assign the minorities 12 seats in the elections, which are certain to reconfigure Iraqi politics when they take place in early 2009.

"It is a degrading decision for the unique minorities of this country. It does not serve public interest and we consider it a major insult for all minorities in Iraq," said Yunadim Kanna, one of the few Christian members of parliament.

Kanna said he believed Christians, estimated to number 750,000, should have received more seats than other, even smaller minorities, some of whom number in the the thousands.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Arab, chided parliament for failing to provide such safeguards when they passed the provincial election law in September.

Could Reshape Politics

The elections, which will select council members in 14 out of Iraq's 18 provinces, are considered essential to healing the country's political and religious feuds.

The polls could reshape Iraqi politics if Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the last such polls in 2005, come out in force. The vote will also be a battleground for competing Shi'ite Arab parties, especially in Iraq's south.

The plight of Iraq's Christians in particular has come to the fore recently as at least 1,500 Christian families fled the northern city of Mosul, where some Christians had been targeted for attack or intimidation.

Some Christians families are slowly returning to Mosul, but the affair highlighted the vulnerability of Iraq's minorities.

The attacks rattled Iraqi Christians and other small groups as violence continues to drop across the country, reaching the lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Yet attacks still occur on a daily basis, and building political cooperation is proving an even more difficult proposition than curtailing violence.

Speaking at a separate event on Islamic-Christian dialogue before the parliamentary vote on November 3, Maliki called for religious and ethnic unity.

"The principle of Iraq for all Iraqis, not for a single sect or ethnic group, has returned and whoever wants to draw a picture of Iraq that marginalizes some parts will not be accepted," he said.

The six seats approved by parliament were assigned to Baghdad, northern Nineveh Province, and southern Basra.

According to Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, Baghdad's provincial council will have a total of 57 seats, Nineveh 37, and Basra 35.