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Iraq's Election Law Goes To Parliament For Approval

A bomb attack near the Justice Ministry building in central Baghdad on October 25 undelines the urgency of the law, observers say.
(RFE/RL) -- Iraq's political leaders have sent what they say is a compromise version of the country's controversial election law to parliament.

The draft, which legislators are due to begin considering on October 27 for approval, could clear the way for holding national legislative elections on schedule on January 16.

The breakthrough comes after party leaders agreed on October 26 to as-yet-unrevealed measures to resolve a months-long impasse over how to conduct the nationwide poll.

The leaders, meeting as the Political Council for National Security, reached the compromise as two massive car-bomb explosions targeted government buildings in Baghdad on October 26.

The bombings, which left as many as 155 dead, underlined the new urgency of holding the January poll. The poll is intended to strengthen popular support for the central government and allow U.S. forces to draw down significantly next year.

The last-minute breakthrough on the election law comes after the parliament already missed a UN-set deadline of October 15 for beginning to prepare for the national election.

That date was set to allow at least 90 days for printing and distributing ballots for what will be Iraq's second parliamentary elections since the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Open vs Closed

Discussions of the election law previously had been derailed by disagreements over whether voters should be able to cast ballots for individual candidates or only for party lists.

Officially, almost all of Iraq's political parties have endorsed voting for individual candidates -- a so-called open-list system. The open-list system has also been endorsed by Iraq's preeminent Shi'ite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has called on deputies to reveal their names in the election process.

But Iraqi election officials have said that many parties in private have fought hard to limit the ballots to party lists only -- a so-called closed-list system.

That is because a closed list favors established political parties and makes it more likely that incumbents will hold onto their seats rather than subjecting them as individuals to the whims of voters.

Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's Election Commission, said last month that some legislators were deliberately dragging out the negotiations over the election bill so that there would not be enough time to prepare ballots with individual names on them. Ballots with only party names upon them are much less time-consuming to produce.

If the January election uses an open-list system, it will be the first Iraqi parliamentary elections to do so. The last legislative poll, in 2005, used a closed-list system that helped propel the country's powerful Shi'ite religious parties to dominance.

Spirit Of Compromise

However, Iraq's most recent national elections -- the local elections of January this year -- used a partially open-list system that was widely seen as weakening the religious parties. Allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made strong gains with voters on a law-and-order message and a de-emphasis on sectarian-based politics.

It is uncertain how the compromise struck on October 26 in the Political Council for National Security solves this question.

The dispute over the election law went to the council late last month from the parliament after legislators repeatedly stalemated in their efforts to resolve differences and it became clear that Iraq was in danger of having to postpone the new parliamentary elections beyond January.

The Political Council groups the heads of the parliamentary political parties, plus the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, president, and vice presidents.

Kirkuk Question

However, the dispute over open or closed lists has not been the only holdup to the election law. Equally problematic has been the question of how to organize voting in the disputed province of Kirkuk.

Arab and Turkoman parties in Kirkuk have demanded a special registration process for voters in the province. They charge Kurdish parties with trying to change the demographics there to bolster efforts to make the province part of the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The Kurdish parties dispute the charge, saying any population change in the Kirkuk region is the result of former Kurdish residents returning there after being expelled during the Saddam era under his efforts to "Arabize" northern Iraq.

The Kirkuk problem has proved so intractable that in this year's local elections Kirkuk was simply left out of the poll for fear of violence.

Details of how any compromise on the election law solves the Kirkuk question are not available and may only become clearer once the parliament votes on the new draft version.

U.S. Draw-Down

U.S. officials are welcoming the apparent last-minute breakthrough on the upcoming election, which Washington sees as central to its plans to begin drawing down troop levels next year.

The spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, General Stephen Lanza, said on October 26 that the political leaders' accord showed that "the resiliency of the government has not been affected" by the insurgent bombing attacks.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has said he will review how quickly to reduce troop levels within 30 to 60 days after the national election.

There are currently 120,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to reduce the deployment by more than half, to some 50,000 soldiers, by August.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report