A senior Kurdish leader on Friday moved to defuse the latest threat to Iraq's imperiled elections – a possible Kurdish boycott – saying ongoing discussions with Iraqi leaders and political party blocs were close to resolving their differences.
"I am cautiously optimistic there will be a resolution," says Barham Saleh, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government.
Also to be resolved is the opposition of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who on Wednesday vetoed the election law passed last week, arguing that it did not allow for enough participation by Iraqi expatriates – a majority of whom are Sunni Arab.
A vote on the law is scheduled for Saturday. But the country's top election official said that even if lawmakers resolved all their differences, it would be impossible to hold elections in January.
"We have already stopped all our work," says Faraj al-Haydari, the head of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). Both IHEC and United Nations officials have said they need at least 60 days to prepare for a credible election. The poll would have to be held before the last week in January – the start of some of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar.
While some political parties are happy to hold elections in February, US and Iraqi political leaders have viewed the January deadline mandated by the Iraqi Constitution as sacrosanct. This election, which could impact the timing of the US withdrawal, is considered particularly crucial in creating a more representative Iraqi government than the poll four years ago. That election was largely boycotted by Sunnis, resulting in a lack of political power that was seen as helping to fuel the insurgency.
Election official: Kurds shortchanged
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, from the same Kurdish political party as Dr. Saleh, said this week that Kurds would boycott the parliamentary elections if they were not given more seats to reflect the increased population in the Kurdish provinces. Elections would not be seen as credible without the participation of the Kurds.
Mr. Haydari says that while changing the number of seats is a political decision, the three Kurdish provinces do appear to have been shortchanged.
The number of seats in the new parliament has been determined by population figures provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, which is responsible for distributing food rations. In the absence of a census, those figures are generally seen the most reliable gauge of Iraq's population.
Talabani's home district of Sulamaniyah received no increase in the number of seats it is entitled to, while the two other Kurdish provinces received three between them.
"All the other governorates have increased from three or four or five and even 10" from the number of seats they were allocated in 2005 elections, says Haydari.
General Odierno on withdrawal
Saleh, speaking by telephone from Arbil, says a Kurdish veto is a last resort, but that the current representation is unacceptable.
"The Kurdish people have made clear they will not stand for it and the Kurdish leadership will not stand for it," says Saleh. "We all know for the last four years the consequences of a democratic process in Iraq were unbelievably damaging," he says, referring to the Sunni boycott. "We don't want to repeat this experience with the Kurds."
There had been fears that delayed elections could also delay the pace of the US troop withdrawal from Iraq. But the top US general here, Gen. Ray Odierno, said on Wednesday that in the absence of any separate destabilizing developments, he planned to wait until next spring to decide whether the pullout should go as planned.