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Iraqis Reach Compromise On Kirkuk Standoff

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi political leaders have reached a tentative compromise that could resolve a stalemate over the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and allow local elections to go ahead, the deputy speaker of parliament said.

Lawmakers rescheduled for August 5 a vote on a provincial election law, which had been held up by wrangling over Kirkuk that has threatened to escalate into renewed ethnic strife.

Washington has been pressing hard on Iraqi leaders to resolve the standoff before it jeopardizes the elections, originally scheduled for October 1 and seen as vital to reconciling the country's factions and solidifying its fragile democracy.

"The new date has been set after fresh hope appeared of reaching an agreement," said Khalid al-Attiya, deputy parliament speaker and a member of Iraq's largest Shi'ite bloc.

A vote had been planned for August 3 but it was scrapped when lawmakers failed to agree on how the elections would affect Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to make part of their semi-autonomous northern region.

Although violence has fallen to its lowest level since 2004, Iraq remains a dangerous place. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and one was wounded on August 4 when a bomb struck their vehicle in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, a member of the Shi'ite majority, gathered rival politicians at his home to broker an end to the standoff over the elections, which the United States and United Nations are urging Iraq to hold this year.

Washington hopes the vote will ease sectarian strife by giving Sunni Arabs a greater political voice after they stayed away from the last local elections in 2005. But wrangling over the law has exposed a rift with another minority, the Kurds.

An initial vote to approve the bill last month was marred by a walkout by Kurdish politicians, who oppose measures they see as robbing them of control of their ancestral capital.

The bill passed without Kurdish support, but President Jalal Talabani -- himself a Kurd -- vetoed it and sent it back to parliament for a second vote.

If the vote on the bill is delayed until after parliament's summer break, it could put the polls off until well into 2009. Lawmakers said the window for reaching an agreement was closing.

"If this issue is not solved in the next two days and the rivals do not reach to a compromise, the vote on the bill will be delayed until after the summer break," said Hashim al-Tai, a member of the main Sunni Arab bloc.

Referendum For Kirkuk

One of the most divisive issues is whether or not the provincial election law will include a reference to a referendum on whether Kirkuk will be included in the Kurdish autonomous region. The referendum is called for in Iraq's constitution and Kurds believe it could tip the scales in their favor.

But Arab and Turkoman residents oppose making Kirkuk part of Kurdistan. Many Arabs moved to the city as part of Saddam Hussein's bid to "Arabize" the area, and some now fear the Kurds want to drive them out.

The city of about 1 million people sits atop oil fields that produce about a fifth of Iraq's export revenue.

The United Nations has been enlisted to help plan a referendum and says a hastily organized vote could trigger more violence. A week ago, more than 20 people died when a suicide bomber struck a protest by Kurds opposed to the election law.

The Kurds' insistence on including the referendum article "brings the situation back to ground zero," Tai said.

Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said the August 4 talks centered on a UN proposal designed to defuse tensions, which would set up a joint administration for Kirkuk as part of a temporary power-sharing solution.

Washington has been leaning on Iraqi politicians to compromise so the elections can be held this year.

President George W. Bush has phoned senior Iraqi officials in recent days and Ambassador Ryan Crocker has met Iraqi politicians.

Meanwhile a senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Fayadh, urged Iraqis to vote in the elections despite what he said was a disappointing performance by the victors of the 2005 polls.

"Not taking part is a serious matter.... It is the responsibility of everyone towards their country and themselves to take part in the elections in great numbers," he said.