24 September 2008
BAGHDAD (AFP) — The Iraqi parliament finally passed a provincial election law on Wednesday, setting a January 31 deadline for a vote to allow more power to be handed to the country's divided communities.
Members of parliament agreed to a compromise that will exclude not only the disputed northern oil province of Kirkuk but also the whole of the northern Kurdistan region from the new legislation.
Kurdish factions, which lay historic claim to Kirkuk and its oil wealth, had put up the sternest resistance to earlier attempts to clear the way for provincial elections seen by the United States as a cornerstone of national reconciliation efforts after the sectarian bloodshed of recent years.
Parliament had been aiming to pass the legislation in time to hold the polls on October 1 in all 18 of Iraq's provinces but deep rifts between the Kurds and their Arab and Turkmen rivals over arrangements for the process in Kirkuk torpedoed any agreement before the summer recess.
MPs have now agreed to postpone the polls in Kirkuk and three northern provinces that already form part of the autonomous Kurdish region so that elections can be held in the other 14 provinces by January 31.
Elections in Kirkuk will not now be held until after March 2009 and the existing multi-communal council will continue to administer the province.
A committee consisting of two representatives each from its Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen communities and one from the Christian community will work to prepare the groundwork for the organisation of elections in Kirkuk.
The ousted Sunni Arab dominated regime of Saddam Hussein poured Arab settlers, both Sunni and Shiite, into the province in a bid to prevent its oil wealth falling into the hands of Kurdish rebels.
For Kurdish leaders, their insistence on Kirkuk being incorporated into their autonomous region was the main reason for their rejection of a peace deal with the Baghdad government in the early 1970s that saw them continue a rebellion in which hundreds of thousands of their people died.
Kurdish MPs have insisted that a new electoral register be compiled giving the vote only to those with a historic claim to residence in the province before elections be held in Kirkuk.
Under the terms of reference set by the new law, the new seven-member committee will report back to parliament in coordination with the United Nations by March 31 after reviewing the electoral roll with both the existing provincial council and the central government.
Passage of the compromise law by a majority of the 191 MPs present in the 275-seat assembly was immediately hailed by speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani as an acceptance by the legislature's disparate factions of the wider national interest.
"The law is what the Iraqi people wanted, and not what the politicians wanted," said Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab Islamist who has frequently been outspoken in his criticism of the US-led occupation and the boost in power it has given to Washington's Kurdish and Shiite allies.
"This law shows our determination to reach an agreement, and that we are able to solve problems in a democratic way. Kirkuk was the source of troubles, but now it became a symbol of nationalism and agreement. It has united us."