Nation & World

Iraqi parliament still gridlocked over provincial-election law

BAGHDAD — Iraqi lawmakers returned from their summer recess Tuesday, still gridlocked over the critical law on provincial elections and with no new vote in sight.

A premature vote, warned Ali Adib, of the ruling Dawaa Party, could lead to another veto by the Kurdish leadership. "It means we'll go into crisis and the positions of the blocs will freeze and get more and more complicated," he said.

Elections in Iraq's 18 provinces are seen as crucial for national reconciliation and safeguarding the security gains of recent months. They would be the country's first since 2005 and would enfranchise many Sunnis who boycotted that round.

But the status of oil-rich, ethnically mixed northern region of Kirkuk has proven contentious. Kurds currently dominate Kirkuk's political leadership and administration, and a Kurdish victory there in provincial elections could be a step toward that region's annexation by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Kurds claim the area as "the beating heart of the Kurdish homeland;" Arabs say it is "Iraqi for all Iraqis," and tribesmen at a recent protest added that the "Kurds will take Kirkuk over our skulls." Both sides have voiced fears about election intimidation, interference and fraud.

In parliament Tuesday, there was no sign that negotiation will be easier than it was this summer. A loose but powerful coalition of Arab parties is wary of Kurdish control prior to elections; Kurds remain adamantly opposed to any law mandating power sharing in Kirkuk, as the current bill does.

"The struggle in Kirkuk is not only over who controls people but who controls the great natural wealth in Kirkuk," said Nassar al-Rubaei, a high-ranking member of the Shiite Sadrist party. "I do not support the stand of the Kurdistan Coalition in this matter."

Abdul Khalik Zengena, a Kurdish MP, said in meetings Wednesday, the coalition will argue for building on suggestions offered by United Nations special representative to Iraq Staffan de Mistura over the summer. According to Zengena, these include distributing Kirkuk's administrative posts equally among the region's Kurd, Arab and Turkmen populations and investigating voter rolls and postponing voting. Zengena said Kurds favored holding Kirkuk's elections along with the rest off the country's.

"The Kurds speak from the vantage point of controlling Kirkuk," countered Osama al-Nijiefi, of the secular Iraqiya Party. "Of course, based on their actions, they are ready to participate in elections to be held in Kirkuk . . . " He said he believed the power-sharing clause of the current bill will resolve the issue. "It will bring a situation of cooperation and understanding between components of the city, and that is why I will push for it," he said.

Another option floated Tuesday was simply to abandon the new election law and adopt an election law originally approved in 2005. But even that is problematic, said Hashim al-Taei of the Tawafuq Party, because of disagreements over closed versus open-list voting. "We didn't have accord about the former law, only opinions," he said. "And we still haven't discussed any of them."

Another option floated Tuesday was to simply abandon the new election law and adopt a 2005 law it was to replace. But even that is a problem, said Hashim al-Taei of the mainly Sunni Tawafuc bloc, because of disagreements over closed versus open-list voting. "We didn't have accord about the former law, only opinions," he said. "And we still haven't discussed any of them."

Negotiations are taking place, as always, amidst complications. Kurdish peshmurga militia forces remain in Khanaqin and other cities outside the Kurdistan Region on the pretext they have mostly Kurdish populations, refusing entry to the Iraqi Army.

And Kurdistan's regional parliament opened session Monday with a statement from its speaker raising fears that Iraqi fighter jets to be purchased from the U.S. would be used against Kurds.

(Spangler reports for the Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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