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Kurdish bloc walks out of parliament

Legislators object to their choices over the disputed city of Kirkuk: postpone voting or share power.

July 16, 2008|Alexandra Zavis and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — An attempt to push through legislation needed to hold Iraq's provincial elections in the fall ended in disarray Tuesday when Kurdish lawmakers walked out of parliament over voting provisions in the disputed city of Kirkuk.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the polls scheduled for Oct. 1 can help ease tensions among Iraq's main ethnic and religious factions by giving groups that boycotted the last election, in 2005, a stake in power. But preparations have been held up because there is no law setting out procedures to be followed.

The United Nations' special representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, has warned that it might not be possible to vote this year unless a bill is approved this month.

With the main political blocs deadlocked on key points, a parliamentary committee decided Sunday to put the bill to a vote and ask lawmakers to choose among several options.

Kurdish lawmakers objected to the choices available for Kirkuk: postpone voting until the future of the oil-rich city is decided or share power evenly among its three main ethnic groups -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

The question of who will control Kirkuk is one of the most explosive issues in Iraq. Kurds, who were expelled from the city by the late Saddam Hussein and replaced with Arabs, want to include Kirkuk in their semiautonomous region to the north.

Arabs worry they would be relegated to second-class citizenship and want the city and its oil resources to remain under the control of the Arab-led central government.

Some Arab and Turkmen lawmakers support the option put before parliament Tuesday of electing a 32-member provincial council in which Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are allocated 10 seats each. The other two seats would go to representatives of the city's Christian minority.

Kurdish lawmakers protested that Kirkuk should not be treated differently from other ethnically and religiously mixed cities in Iraq, many of which they argue are more violent.

"This is against the constitution and contradicts the principle of democracy," Fuad Masoum, head of the Kurdish alliance, told journalists after walking out of the session.

Kurdish lawmakers contend that the results of the provincial elections should determine who gets how many seats. But the city's Arabs accuse the Kurds of stacking any vote by pressuring Arabs to leave and moving in more Kurds.

Kurdish lawmakers said they might be willing to accept a delay in voting, but only if consensus is reached on the matter with the other parties in Kirkuk. They asked to be given until Thursday to work out a compromise.

When parliament's Sunni Muslim speaker, Mahmoud Mashadani, refused to grant them the delay, the Kurds walked out.

The room then descended into chaos, with Arab lawmakers shouting and banging their desks for a vote to go ahead on the election law, and Mashadani insisting there was no quorum.

"If those members who take tens of thousands of dollars [in salaries] were responsible, we would not be in such a mess," Mashadani admonished them.

He then announced that he would deduct 5 million Iraqi dinars (about $4,000) from the salary of any member who failed to attend parliament without a good reason -- a persistent problem for the body.

When lawmakers began to protest that it was the Kurds' fault that there was no quorum, Mashadani snapped back: "They left for reason. But those who were absent today, they knew that we had an important bill today. When they will they come? When?"

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.

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