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.

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.

"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.

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