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Call from Obama seals Iraq election law

Iraq elections can now go forward after Kurds and Sunnis agreed to a new, amended law. Obama's 11th-hour call Sunday night was part of a crucial US role in sealing the deal.

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

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

"That's why these elections will be very, very critical," says a senior Kurdish official. "All the existential issues – the Sunni-Kurd relations, can we live in one country – all these issues will be addressed."

A rollercoaster for the US

For US officials desperate for an agreement that would prevent a political and security vacuum in the midst of a US withdrawal, the political wrangling since Parliament passed the election law in early November has been a roller-coaster ride.

The White House on Sunday issued a statement calling the agreement "a decisive moment for Iraq's democracy."

While the commander of US ground forces here, Gen. Ray Odierno, has said he has until May to make a decision on the pace of withdrawal of US combat forces meant to be out by next August, even now almost every decision is geared toward the US withdrawal. The US discussions with Iraqi leaders have emphasized that a failure to hold the elections early next year could jeopardize political and security agreements with the US and other countries.

'There was a consensus'

Mr. Derhegopian, Hashemi's advisor, says he believes that the delays and brinksmanship in the end resulted in a better law than the original, which was passed by Parliament and hailed by the US as a victory at the beginning of November.

"No one is talking about a boycott now," he says. "To a reasonable extent everyone got what they wanted – there was a consensus."

Some Iraqi officials and Western analysts saw the months of American urging of Iraqi lawmakers to pass the legislation by specific dates as another example of the US trying to fit Iraq into its own timelines.

"I think it's more important to get it right – the elections law and the elections themselves – rather than have them on time," says Joost Hiltermann, with the International Crisis Group.

Dr. Hiltermann, who welcomed the delayed law passed on Sunday as an example of consensus, says the past six years have shown the damage done when key issues are left unresolved for the sake of meeting deadlines.

"We saw that with the January 2005 elections when there was a boycott threat that was not heeded," he says. "We saw it with the rushing through of a constitution with an imposed deadline when there were serious divisions that had to be bridged."

The serious, unresolved issues highlighted by the electoral wrangling has also shown a disconnect between the US view of Iraq and the reality, say some Iraqi officials who insist on anonymity.

"Their mission now is to deal with Iraq as an independent, sovereign, beautiful, peaceful country. This is wishful thinking," says one senior Iraqi official.

• Reporting contributed by Awadh al-Taee.