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Iraqi Parliament Compromises On Kirkuk, Passes Important Elections Law

An election poster near a polling station in Baghdad
Iraq's parliament has passed a provincial elections law after months of bickering between Arabs and Kurds over the northern city of Kirkuk.

Passage of the draft law raises the possibility that local elections can be conducted in Iraq by the end of the year. The bill still must be approved by Iraq's three-member presidency before it becomes law.

Iraq's provincial elections were originally scheduled to take place October 1, but the voting was delayed indefinitely by months of political bickering in Iraqi's parliament over the election rules.

In particular, lawmakers have been divided over how to conduct elections in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, where control is disputed by Kurds, Arabs, and ethnic-Turkic Turkomans.

But on September 24, the Iraqi parliament's Legal Committee chairman, Bahaha al-Araji, announced to reporters in Baghdad that a compromise has finally been reached.

"We have reached an agreement on this issue.," he said. "I think that this will facilitate coming stances in the coming days as long as we have reached an agreement on this big issue. We tell our brothers in the south, the center of Iraq, in Kurdistan, and in all the cities that this is an achievement by parliament. The election will be soon, Inshallah."

Concessions Witnessed

Salim al-Juburi, a Sunni Arab legislator from the Accordance Front, says the provincial elections law was passed unanimously with both Kurdish and Arab lawmakers in attendance.

"The last session has witnessed some concessions from all to reach a text that will resolve the wrangling over Kirkuk," al-Juburi says. "Actually, the policy followed by the legal and regional committees was to reach a minimum consensus. I can say that the text does not represent the ambitions [of any one group] -- the Kurds, the Turkomans, or the Arabs."

Al-Juburi also explains that the compromise by Iraqi lawmakers includes an agreement to draft separate legislation on Kirkuk.

"The main points of the text include a special law for Kirkuk organizing elections, power sharing, and the reparation operations for the violations that happened in Kirkuk according to [decisions by] a committee that will be formed by the parliament representing all the major political parties in Kirkuk," he says.

Kurds have argued that their ethnic group is numerically superior in Kirkuk. They also consider Kirkuk to be their ancient capital and want to fold the city into their largely autonomous northern region. But Arabs and Turkomans want the city to remain under the authority of Iraq's central government.

'Much More Positive'

Anatol Lieven, a professor at Kings College London and a senior fellow for the Washington-based New America Foundation, says that political compromise on Kirkuk suggests a step forward has been made for democracy in Iraq.

"Since Kirkuk is the most sensitive and dangerous issue, perhaps in the whole country, it is particularly encouraging that they seem, at least, to have reached agreement on Kirkuk," Lieven says.

Lieven says that the bigger picture is whether such a compromise on Kirkuk can hold without the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq to prevent the outbreak of fresh factional fighting.

"This is part of the ongoing, slow process of adjustment, negotiation, mostly peaceful struggle between Iraq's different ethno-religious groups," he says. "On the whole, I would say that the picture is now much more positive than it was a couple of years ago. But there is one absolutely overwhelming unanswered question hanging over all of this -- which is, will it survive if the levels of American troops are drastically reduced? Or is a massive American military presence necessary to keep the different sides talking and to keep them from going back to war again?"

Reconcile Rival Groups

Indeed, local elections are seen as a test of Iraq's nascent democracy. U.S. officials hope the process will help reconcile rival groups -- especially Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005 and feel marginalized in areas where they are numerically dominant.

But there also are fears that the elections could fuel tensions between competing groups, especially in the Shi'ite south where there is expected to be a power struggle for control of a region that contains most of Iraq's proven oil reserves.

Before any elections are held, however, the provincial elections law must be submitted to Iraq's three-member Presidency Council for approval. The head of the council, President Jalal Talabani, had rejected an earlier version.

But political analysts say that the unanimous support for the legislation in parliament suggests that approval by the presidency council should be a formality.

Once the legislation is signed into law by the presidency council, Iraq's Independent Election Commission must set a date for the polls. Election Commission head Adil Lami has said that much of the organizing work already has been done. But he says it may be four or five months before voting takes place.

Parliament has urged that the elections be held before the end of January.