The struggle for the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk sabotaged another effort by Iraq’s parliament to approve a law Sunday allowing crucial local elections this year, a stalemate that also raised questions about whether major Shiite and Sunni parties were deliberately stalling on sending people to the polls.
Despite a meeting of senior Iraqi leaders and U.S. and U.N. officials seeking a compromise on Kirkuk, members of parliament failed even to muster a quorum for Sunday’s emergency session. Iraqi officials vowed to try again today, days after lawmakers were supposed to adjourn for a monthlong summer recess.
U.S. officials believe the elections, initially scheduled for October, are necessary for Iraq’s long-term stability.
Sunni Arabs, formerly the country’s elite, boycotted the last such elections, in January 2005, leading to the creation of provincial councils dominated by Shiite Muslims and Kurds. The absence of Sunni Muslims from local government helped strengthen the Sunni-led insurgency across central and northern Iraq.
A similar dynamic played out in Iraq’s Shiite south, where anti-Western cleric Muqtada Sadr’s populist Shiite movement skipped the 2005 vote and then grew angry over its political rivals’ dominance in the southern provinces.
The stalemate emphasized the fissures and entrenched positions among Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds in northern Iraq, which often threaten to spill over into violence. Last week, a suicide bomber struck a Kurdish demonstration in Kirkuk and sparked ethnic riots that along with the bombing left 25 people dead.
As in other areas in the north, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are in a struggle for power in Kirkuk, where the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party expelled Kurds and settled Arabs over a 35-year period. The Kurds consider the city the equivalent of their Jerusalem, and wish to annex it to the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.
In turn, neighboring Turkey has vowed to protect the north’s Turkmen population and considers the Kurds’ threat to annex Kirkuk a provocation.
Parliament’s protracted deadlock also revealed what Iraqi and Western officials believe is the reluctance of the country’s most powerful Sunni and Shiite parties to hold elections in which they could lose to upstarts.
“If the law doesn’t pass, the biggest losers are those who don’t have representatives in the provincial councils right now,” said lawmaker Fawzi Akram, a Sadr supporter, whose movement hopes to gain a larger voice in provinces through independent candidates when elections are finally held. “Many political deals are being made behind closed doors and hurting the interests of the Iraqi people.”
The sides have tried to resolve the crisis since Kurdish lawmakers walked out of parliament July 22 over an attempt to dilute their power in Kirkuk through the election law. The U.S. military warned that the Al Qaeda in Iraq could try to exploit the tensions, although officers consider the militant group weakened.
“A lot of the population has their blood up. It’s a little more charged,” said Brig. Gen. Tony Thomas, the No. 2 U.S. officer in the region.
What happens in the city will have an effect across other regions where Kurds and Arabs are locked in a contest to define the boundaries between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq. “Kirkuk has a ripple effect,” Thomas said.
It has been a long road to provincial elections. Parliament finally reached an agreement this winter on a law defining the provinces’ powers and called for local elections to be held in October. But lawmakers then stalled on passing an elections law. The pause caused the country’s electoral commission to warn last month that elections could not be held until December.
If the vote is delayed until next year, it might not take place before summer because Iraq’s electoral commission would have to register anyone turning 18, which could number as many as 1 million people.
Western diplomats and Iraqi officials have privately warned that some of the larger parties, specifically the Shiites’ Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Sunnis’ Iraqi Islamic Party, probably prefer delaying a vote.
According to these officials, the Shiite party fears it could lose seats on councils it controls in southern Iraq, and the Sunni party has been challenged around central Iraq by tribes and the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni movement that revolted against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Kurds have their own reasons to wait on elections, they said: In the northern province of Nineveh, their bloc dominates a province that has a Sunni Arab majority.
“There is pressure from all sides at the end of the day to keep the situation as it is,” said a Shiite lawmaker from the ruling coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity because he belongs to the Shiite coalition that includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
A Western diplomat who also spoke on condition of anonymity pointed to the absence of prominent officials from Baghdad as an example of the disinterest. Iraq’s most senior Sunni official, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, has been in Turkey for a minor medical operation. In turn, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, flew to the United States for knee surgery Saturday night.
But the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Kurds deny that they are trying to delay the law. “We don’t want a crisis in this country,” said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior member of the Shiite party.
“We will lose if elections are delayed,” said Abdul Kareem Samarrai, a senior lawmaker from the Islamic Party. He said his party stood to gain in provinces across central Iraq because of the 2005 Sunni boycott.
As the sides argued, a truck bomb blew up Sunday in a northeastern Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least eight people and wounding 12, police said.
A car bomb also exploded Sunday night in the Shiite city of Hillah, killing one person and wounding 11, police said.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.