Concern over crucial Iraqi elections grew on Monday as parliamentarians here considered a new United Nations proposal aimed at breaking a two-month deadlock over how to conduct the vote, slated for January. Negotiations over the election law have remained stalled over one of the most emotional issues in the country – the disputed city of Kirkuk.
The United States and the UN, concerned that a further delay would require postponing elections past January, have issued unusually pointed statements in the past week urging the Iraqi factions to try to settle their differences. US Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional government, on Sunday to urge him to agree to an election law, Kurdish officials say.
The US and UN "should be worried," says Hunain al-Qaddo, a member of parliament from Iraq's Shabak minority. "If we don't manage to make any progress on the electoral law, that will have a negative impact on the political process and it will send a very bad signal to Iraq's enemies that the political system isn't working."
Iraqi ministries have been hit by four major bombings since August in an apparent attempt by insurgents to destabilize the government ahead of the elections. US officials say that if the vote doesn't take place on time, it could set back the planned withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
"I still have hopes but I think if we don't manage to do something this week or next week, we really have to look at postponing the election," says Dr. Qaddo.
'Kirkuk is the dividing line'
Parliament must either pass new legislation or amend a 2005 law to allow elections seen as crucial to the country's stability to take place early next year as mandated by the Constitution.
After more than two months of negotiations, parliamentarians are still deadlocked over who should have the right to vote in Kirkuk – the oil-rich city with a large Arab and Turkmen population is seen by the Kurds as its rightful capital – and how many seats each faction should have there.
"Kirkuk is the dividing line between a united or divided Iraq," says Fawzi Akram, a Turkmen member of parliament with the Sadr bloc. "Anyone who thinks the Arabs and Turkmen will give up Kirkuk is deluded."
Mr. Akram says parliamentarians on Monday were considering a new UN proposal that would elect members of parliament for only one year rather than the usual four-year terms while the voter lists are clarified. Some groups dissatisfied with that idea have presented competing proposals.
16 proposals so far
US embassy and UN officials, who along with journalists are barred from attending the sessions of parliament, hovered near party and committee meetings trying to get a reading on which way a vote might go.
Despite an apparent agreement in October, the positions of the two sides appear to have become even more entrenched.
"We've had 16 proposals so far and the Kurds have rejected all of them," says Akram, who is from Kirkuk, adding that the Kurds have been trying to use the election law to legitimize their claims to disputed areas.
Kurdish politicians counter that it's Arab and Turkmen members who are refusing to compromise on the draft law the legal committee was working to craft.
"There is no agreement – the Arabs refused all the proposals, including the last proposal from the heads of parliament," says Khalid Shwani, a member of parliament who is the chief Kurdish negotiator over Kirkuk.
Latest voter lists were lost
Some held out hope for a last-minute breakthrough.
"You know the nature of Iraqis is that we can disagree for one year and in one hour or one minute we can solve the problem," says Mahama al-Shangali, a Yzedi member of the Kurdish bloc.
Voting for other crucial pieces of legislation – including the US-Iraq joint security agreement – was taken to the brink of the last deadline before the parties agreed.
Western officials involved in trying to broker a compromise had believed they were on the verge of an agreement more than two weeks ago but the deal collapsed over the number of electoral districts in Iraq as well as which voting lists to use.
Complicating the disagreement, officials from Iraq's independent electoral commission told members of parliament last week that they had lost the voter registration lists for the 2004 municipal elections. Arabs and Turkmen want to use lists before the Kurds, expelled under Saddam Hussein's regime, flooded back to the city.