Iraqi lawmakers on Sunday approved a new election law after weeks of delay, paving the way for crucial national elections in January.
Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen parties who have been deadlocked for weeks over how to handle the issue of who gets to vote in the disputed city of Kirkuk each claimed the compromise agreement as a victory. The US ambassador to Iraq said it defused the chance that the parliamentary elections would be used try to decide the fate of the oil-rich city.
"The real trick was to make people understand that this election, these election rules, these voter lists cannot be used to get a leg up in the Kirkuk negotiations so we tried very clearly to fence it off," Ambassador Chris Hill said in a conference call with reporters.
The final law, passed by a vote of 141 out of 195 members, provides for results in Kirkuk and other areas claimed by Kurds as well as Arabs and Turkmen, to be reviewed over the course of a year. If there are irregularities, voting there would be repeated.
The US, worried that delayed elections would affect Iraq's political stability as well as potentially extend the US time-line for a troop withdrawal, had been pushing hard for the Iraqi parliament to pass the new law.
"Had these deliberations gone on some decisions would have had to be made" regarding a US drawdown, Mr Hill said, adding that as things stand now the pace of troop withdrawal next year will not be affected.
UN and Iraqi election officials had warned last week that it would be impossible to hold elections that had been scheduled for January 16 if an election law were not passed imminently. Mr Hill said the new election date is expected to be January 23. Under the constitution, Iraq's second parliamentary elections need to be held by the end of January.
Iraqi lawmakers have gone back and forth only to have deals unravel in committee meetings before they made it to the floor of parliament.
The members also agreed to an 'open list' in which voters can choose individual candidates rather than a replay of the 2005 parliamentary elections in which they were given only a choice of parties and political blocs. The open list, seen as more democratic, has been opposed by some parliamentarians who are unlikely to win re-election in the face of widespread discontent over inefficiency and corruption.
"This was a big gain for the political process – there was no loser here," Turkmen member of parliament Abbas al-Bayati told reporters after the vote. "The residents of Kirkuk should go hand in hand to the voting booth."
Others hailed it as a victory for their own factions.
"The Kurds want Kirkuk to be a Kurdish province… the Iraqi province won out in the end," said Sunni Arab lawmaker Amar al-Jabouri.
"This is a big victory for the parliament and the Iraqi people and our homeland," said Kurdish parliamentarian Feryad Rawandoozi.