Monday, December 07, 2009
After Delays, Deal Set on Iraq Election Law
When the New York Times is reporting on progress from Iraq, well that certainly says something about the state of affairs.. New York Times By MARC SANTORA and RIYADH MOHAMMED BAGHDAD — Lawmakers pulled Iraq back from the brink of a constitutional crisis on Sunday night, brokering a last-minute compromise that will allow for the first national elections since 2005. A deal on the election law has fallen apart before, underscoring the deep sectarian divide that remains in Iraq, despite a drop in violence. Fighting over the law also threatens to complicate the American withdrawal. After months of wrangling, the Iraqi Parliament gathered just before midnight to approve a deal that had been secured only hours before in closed-door talks. “It is a great achievement for Iraq,” said Khalid al-Attiya, a deputy speaker of Parliament, shortly after the vote. The deal had been approved Sunday by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders, according to government officials, so it was unlikely to collapse again. American and United Nations diplomats worked furiously over the weekend to secure the compromise, but were often unsure of what was happening as the discussions among Iraq’s senior political leaders broke down time and again. At one point on Sunday, a group of Western diplomats gathered in the dismal Parliament cafeteria, which was bombed by militants in 2007, comparing notes to see if they could make sense of the latest developments. The deal was not very different from the original election law, which was vetoed by Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni and one of Iraq’s two vice presidents. He said the law underrepresented Iraqis outside the country, who are largely Sunnis who fled the sectarian war that plunged the country into turmoil. Essentially, the dispute centered on the allocation of seats in Parliament, with each sect angling to get as many seats as possible in the areas where it felt strongest. Because a national census that was supposed to take place earlier this year was postponed, there is no accurate count of Iraqi citizens, and each political faction was wary of being shortchanged. The initial effort to pass an election law was delayed on 11 separate occasions, but when an agreement was reached Nov. 8, it was hailed as a sign of progress. That deal quickly fell apart when Mr. Hashimi used his constitutional authority to veto it. Mr. Hashimi is one of three members of Iraq’s Presidency Council, which also includes President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite. Together they have the power effectively to veto any law passed by Parliament. In response to the first veto, Parliament passed a law that was viewed as even more unfavorable to Sunnis, prompting Mr. Hashimi to threaten a veto once again. Fearful that another veto could delay elections indefinitely, top American officials have been appealing directly to the country’s top lawmakers to step back from the abyss. The White House said in a statement on Sunday that the United States welcomed adoption of the resolution on the Iraqi election law. Yet as night fell in Baghdad on Sunday and no deal had been reached, aides to Mr. Hashimi waited outside the door of the speaker’s office with a veto order at the ready. It was only around 10 p.m. that the outlines of a deal became clear. Parliament would be expanded to 325 seats from 275, with 310 of those seats allotted to Iraq’s 18 provinces and the remainder reserved for Iraqis living outside the country. But even after the deal had been largely agreed upon, lawmakers were still haggling over such issues as how the Christian minority would be represented. For all the fighting, the compromise represented little change from the law passed Oct. 27 and then vetoed. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had warned that the delay could lead to increased violence, and there were fears of a replay of the 2005 election, which was largely boycotted by the Sunnis and fueled a sense of anger that bolstered Sunni militants. Over the weekend, a series of attacks underscored just how fragile the security gains remain. On Friday, militants in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, killed four members of the police force, including a local commander who had gained a reputation as one of the staunchest foes of Sunni insurgents. While much of the recent violence has been concentrated in Sunni strongholds, there has been concern about Shiite militias regaining traction. In Basra, where more than 150 prisoners once affiliated with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr have been released in recent weeks, there have been a spate of assassinations of political figures, according to local security officials. If the deal holds, it will be a relief to American military commanders, who have been timing their withdrawal to the elections. While the American military role here has already been greatly reduced, the idea was to still have a sizable presence at the time of the election and during the seating of a new government. Election officials have said they would need at least 60 days’ notice to write up ballots, secure polling stations and generally prepare for a vote. Barring another political meltdown, that means a date for the elections could be set for as early as the end of February. Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, has said that while the military has built flexibility into the withdrawal timeline, the plan was to step up troop departures in the spring to meet President Obama’s goal of having all combat troops out of the country by August 2010.