Call from Obama Seals Iraq Election Law

Article excerpt

Iraq's fractious Parliament agreed to a compromise paving the way for legislative elections early next year after an 11th-hour phone call from President Obama to a top Kurdish leader removed remaining objections to a deal.

Minutes before a midnight deadline to approve the amended law, lawmakers who had been arguing in conference rooms and around cafeteria tables voted in the Parliament chamber to approve an election law placed in jeopardy when it was vetoed by Iraq's Sunni vice president three weeks ago.

The uncertainty over whether it would pass sent US and UN diplomats into a tailspin, with US Ambassador Christopher Hill rushing back from Washington and the United Nations special representative Ad Melkert trying to bridge Sunni and Kurdish objections.

"The US role was monumental. They brought everyone together," says Krikor Derhegopian, an advisor to Vice President Tariq al- Hashemi, whose veto sparked the latest crisis. He says the elections could likely be held on Feb. 27, the latest date suggested by UN officials.

Obama's call and the US diplomacy was a stark reminder that as the US withdraws militarily from iraq, it remains engaged in almost every part of the political process.

Every seat crucial in elections

The finalized election law addresses a key concern raised by Mr. Hashemi's veto: that several million Iraqis living outside Iraq were not being adequately represented. A majority of those who fled Iraq during the worst of the sectarian fighting over the last six years are believed to be Sunni. The amended law allows their votes to count in their original home districts, many of them Sunni areas.

Sunni Arab Iraqis boycotted the 2005 elections in protest against what they consider a US-backed, Shiite-dominated political process. US efforts to bring them back into the political system to improve the prospects for stability has left the Kurds, traditional US allies, feeling sidelined.

A 90-minute conversation with US Vice President Joe Biden last month failed to budge Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani's objections to the election law or lift a Kurdish threat to boycott the vote. The Kurds believe that the original figures used by election authorities, which show increased population in Shiite and Sunni areas but none in Kurdistan, were a deliberate attempt to limit their influence.

Iraqi political players involved in the negotiations say Kurdish officials have been in virtual seclusion in the north for more than a week. But Obama's phone call to Mr. Barzani Sunday night promising to support the resolution of key issues next year, including a census and the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, appeared to have sealed the deal.

The law passed Sunday gives the Kurds three more seats than the law vetoed by Mr. Hashemi, but fewer than the Kurds had demanded.

With the next Parliament facing crucial questions such as Kirkuk and revenue sharing, every seat could help influence the outcome. …