BAGHDAD — Iraq's bickering politicians finally agreed on a new election law Sunday, paving the way for crucial national balloting to take place in January and for the drawdown of U.S. troops to proceed as scheduled.
Parliament's passage of the law came so late that the election cannot be held as had been planned on Jan. 16, said U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, and will probably be moved to Jan. 23. But that is within the January deadline mandated by Iraq's Constitution, and Hill said the short delay would make no difference to the U.S. military's plans to bring all combat troops home by the end of August.
"What is significant about the date . . . in January is that the troops can be drawn down on schedule," Hill told reporters in a conference call after the vote in Iraq's parliament. "We can achieve the January time frame and the responsible drawdown as expected."
The protracted deadlock over the new law had raised concerns about the stability of Iraq's fledgling democracy, and the ability of Iraqi politicians to deal with the many unresolved issues that may still confront them once U.S. combat troops have gone, including the thorny issue of the contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which proved the biggest obstacle to the new law.
In Washington, President Obama hailed the agreement as "an important milestone" for Iraq.
"This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq, and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September," he said at the White House.
U.S. commanders have tied the pullout to the election because they want to be sure Iraq is stable before the troops start to leave in significant numbers. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall commander, is to make an assessment of security conditions 60 days after the poll, before giving the final word on whether the withdrawal will go ahead under the planned timetable. A residual force of 50,000 is due to remain behind until the end of 2011 to train Iraqi troops and provide logistical support.
The vote came at the end of another intensive day of negotiations, during which the U.S. ambassador was seen striding through the hallways, flanked by diplomats, as he circulated among the factions to press them to reach an agreement.
Though the U.S. ceded the lead role in the negotiations to the United Nations, American diplomats stepped up their involvement in the talks as the stalemate dragged on. But Hill credited the Iraqis with devising the solutions that sealed the deal. "This is really a made-in-Iraq election law," Hill said.
The long and sometimes stormy impasse nonetheless demonstrated the deep divisions that still threaten to tear Iraq apart, notably over the long-contested province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs.
The biggest snag concerned the issue of how voting would proceed in Kirkuk, whose population has swelled after an influx of Kurds claiming to be reversing the policy of "Arabization" undertaken by former President Saddam Hussein.
Arabs and Turkmens allege the Kurdish immigration has far exceeded the numbers expelled by Hussein, as Kurds seek to boost their claims to ownership of the province. The Arabs and Turkmens sought special redress in the law for the imbalance, while Kurds were insisting there should be no special arrangements for the northern province.
In the end, the factions came up with a compromise formula under which all registered voters in Kirkuk will be eligible to vote, but a special committee will spend the year after the election reviewing voter rolls in Kirkuk and other "suspect" provinces to see whether there are irregularities. Kurds claim that other provinces, including Nineveh and Baghdad, have also seen a suspiciously large growth in the number of registered voters since the last election.
Like so many past compromises in Iraq, this one seemed to defer the dispute, setting the stage for postelection wrangling over whether those who voted were eligible.
It is also unclear what steps would be taken should irregularities be found. Arabs said the January election results would be valid for only one year in Kirkuk, while Kurds said that even if irregularities were found, they would not affect the outcome.
Key to obtaining the deal, said Hill, was a clause specifying that any electoral arrangements agreed to in the law would have no bearing on future negotiations on the status of the province, which Kurds want to incorporate into the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. That is an issue that needs to be resolved separately in future talks supervised by the U.N., the ambassador said. "The real trick was to make people understand that these election rules could not be used to get a leg up in the Kirkuk negotiations," Hill said.
But already some Arab lawmakers were saying the law strikes a blow against Kurdish claims, because it acknowledges Arab and Turkmen demands that Kirkuk merits special treatment.