Iraq passes poll law, vote urged before Jan. 31

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s parliament passed a provincial elections law on Wednesday after months of arguing between Arabs and Kurds, and called for the vote to be held before January 31 next year, legislators said.

The polls had been scheduled for October 1 but the law governing how the vote should be conducted stalled in parliament over how to treat the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where control is disputed by Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turkmen.

The law now goes to Iraq’s three-member presidency council, headed by President Jalal Talabani, for approval. Talabani rejected an earlier version that was approved by legislators in July and sent it back to parliament.

Faraj al-Haidari, head of Iraq’s Electoral Commission, told Reuters that while much of the organizing work had been finished it could be 4-5 months before the vote could go ahead. “If the presidency (council) approves the law, we need 140 to 150 days to complete all the preparations to hold the elections,” he said.

Salim al-Jubouri, a senior parliamentarian from the Sunni Arab Accordance Front, said the law had been passed unanimously with Kurds and Arabs in attendance. All sides had made concessions on Kirkuk, he said, adding there would be a separate law for dealing with elections in Kirkuk as well as a power-sharing formula for the city’s administration.

Local elections are seen as a test of Iraq’s democracy and Washington hopes they will help reconcile rival groups, especially Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last provincial polls in 2005 and, without a say in most local governments, now feel marginalized in areas where they are numerically dominant.

The polls could also lead to tension between competing groups, especially in the Shi’ite south where there is expected to be a struggle for power in a region that holds most of the country’s proven reserves of oil.

UN PRAISES PARLIAMENTARY VOTE Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, congratulated lawmakers for reaching a compromise on Kirkuk. “This is an important day. The Iraqi people will now have a chance to express their own opinion and their own vote about who is going to lead them at the provincial level,” De Mistura told a news conference with parliamentary leaders. The earlier version of the law passed by parliament and rejected by Talabani, a Kurd, would have divided council seats equally between Kirkuk’s ethnic groups. Kurdish MPs had boycotted the session in protest.

Kurds believe they are numerically superior in Kirkuk, which they consider their ancient capital and want to fold into their largely autonomous northern region. Kirkuk’s Arabs and Turkmen want the city to remain under central government authority.

“The committee was able to fix a tough problem that remained unsolved for months,” said Khalid Shwani, a Kurdish lawmaker. The new law changes some of the voting procedures from legislation used for the last local elections in January 2005.

One significant difference is it uses an open list electoral system — where voters can choose specific candidates. Under the old law, a closed list system was used, where they can only selected political parties. Drafts of the new law also barred any party that had a militia from competing. It was not immediately clear if this provision was in the version that was approved.

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