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Iraqis Pass Election Law Crucial to US Withdrawal Plans

Warren P. Strobel and Sahar Issa

BAGHDAD — After nearly a dozen delays and a final, rowdy session,
Iraq's parliament on Sunday passed a law setting national elections for
January, averting for now a political crisis that threatened to unravel
the country's slow progress toward stability.

Approval of the law eases a growing source of concern for the Obama
administration. President Barack Obama is considering sending 34,000
more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and successful elections here are key
to a major reduction in U.S. combat forces in Iraq by next summer.

elections, now scheduled for Jan. 23, had been held up by an explosive
dispute over the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, where both Arabs and Kurds
claim a majority. Lawmakers resolved the disagreement for now by
agreeing to use voter rolls from 2009, and not a 2004 voter list
compiled before many Kurds had moved into the region.

lawmakers also resolved another key issue: how to list candidates on
the ballot. Under the new law, candidates will be listed by name — a
so-called open list — and not by party affiliation, a "closed list" in
which voters do not know who the individual candidates are. The
decision to use an open list will make it more difficult for
religious-based parties to win support.

"Today we have been able
to achieve one of the most sought-after points regarding the elections
and that is the open list. And it is a grand day for Kirkuk. It will
not be deprived of its right in national elections," said Khalid
Shwani, a Kurdish lawmaker and prominent figure in negotiations over
the law.

"Of course there were many compromises. No one can reach
an accord without making some concessions," said parliament member
Fawzi Akram, from Iraq's Turkomen minority.

Iraqi and U.S. officials expressed relief Sunday.

is good news. This is an achievement for all Iraqis, and for the
political process," said Sadiq al Rikabi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime
Minister Nouri al Maliki.

U.S. ambassador Chris Hill and Army
Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, issued a
statement congratulating the Iraqis.

Hill, in a conference call
with reporters, said that, for now, the withdrawal of U.S. combat
forces from Iraq could proceed as planned next year. "Had these
deliberations gone on, some new decisions would have had to be made"
about U.S. troop withdrawals, he said. "We knew that a crucial element
of the schedule was that we were able to be here in strength through
the election."


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The Kirkuk issue, which generates deep emotions
among Iraq's Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, had repeatedly stymied efforts
to pass the law.

Many Kurds were expelled from the area under
Saddam Hussein, but have returned since the March 2003 U.S. invasion —
in numbers that other Iraqis say exceed their previous population. The
decision to use voter registration lists from 2009 was a victory for
the Kurds.

The dispute, however, was only postponed, not resolved.

law set up a fact-finding committee to examine voter lists in Kirkuk
and other disputed areas, and compare them with 2004 versions. The
panel is to complete its work in a year, long after the national
elections, potentially setting up another stand-off.

The days
leading up to the final vote showed how Iraqi officials, after years of
sectarian violence, still struggle between defending their ethnic or
religious group and representing the interests of the country as a

Sunday's final session was raucous, with lawmakers
shouting and a few storming out of the session. One of the most
contentious issues was whether internally displaced Iraqis, who number
as many as 2.5 million, could cast votes in their former home regions.
In the end, it was decided they could not.

As late as Sunday afternoon, it was still uncertain lawmakers would pass the bill after so many failed attempts.

have been nine sessions in which we failed to reach any results - this
is the tenth, inshallah (God willing) it will be the last," said Salim
al Juburi, a spokesman for the main Sunni bloc in parliament.

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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