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IRAQ: Disputes over Kirkuk delay new election law

The thorny question of how to organize voting in the disputed province of Kirkuk is threatening to undermine the integrity of crucial national elections that the U.S. military hopes will pave the way for a mass drawdown of American troops.

The Iraqi parliament today missed a second presumed deadline for passing an election law to regulate the poll, scheduled for January, because of the dispute over voting procedures in the oil-rich province, which is claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans.

At issue is the question of whether all the current residents of Kirkuk should be eligible to vote. In recent years, thousands of Kurds have moved into the area from Kurdistan, supposedly to reverse the Arabization policies of Saddam Hussein, who expelled Kurds and settled Arabs there.

But Arabs and Turkomans say the Kurdish influx has far exceeded the expulsion of Kurds during the Hussein era and that special measures needed to be taken to avoid the Kurds having an unfair advantage in Kirkuk.

Various proposals have been mooted, including one suggested by the U.N. that would pre-assign the province's 13 seats to Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman candidates. Another proposal suggests dividing Kirkuk into regions in such a way as to guarantee representation to Turkomans and Arabs as well as Kurds.

But in negotiations today, the Kurds said they would reject any special arrangement for Kirkuk as anti-constitutional and instead proposed the formation of a committee to vet voter registration lists in all Iraq's provinces -- something that could prove a lengthy exercise.

Many legislators suspect delaying tactics. If no agreement is reached on a new election law in time for the Jan. 16 poll to be organized, the 2005 election law will kick in. That would give all Kurds in Kirkuk the right to vote -- and it would also mean that all Iraqis would vote on the basis of a so-called "closed-list" system instead of the "open list" provided for in the new election law.

Under a closed-list system, Iraqis get to vote only for party names. An open list would allow them to choose individual candidates, something it is presumed would favor the slate of candidates headed by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is personally popular. Though public opinion and the powerful Shiite clergy favor an open list, many of Maliki's rivals – including the Kurds – would prefer to have a closed list.

Also, if the 2005 law is adopted, there is a real danger that Arabs and Turkomans will boycott the poll in Kirkuk. If the Kurds don't get their way, they may boycott.

It's an arcane dispute, and it may yet get resolved by one of those eleventh-hour compromises that have salvaged Iraq in the past. No one is yet talking about delaying the election.

But the dispute over Kirkuk is real and extends far beyond the immediate problem of how to organize voting there. The question of who should control the province remains perhaps the biggest unresolved issue hanging over Iraq as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw. Many legislators are starting to worry that a failure to compromise on Kirkuk could call into question the legitimacy of the entire election.

And as the recent experiences of Iran and Afghanistan have demonstrated, a flawed election can serve as a major trigger for new instability. That's the last thing the U.S. military needs as it packs up its gear and prepares to head home.

-- Liz Sly in Baghdad

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