Iraqi lawmakers overcame weeks of deadlock Wednesday to pass three key measures: a $48-billion national budget, an amnesty bill and legislation paving the way for provincial elections by Oct. 1.
Approval of the bills could signal a greater willingness by Iraq’s main ethnic and religious factions to overcome differences that have stymied political progress. Lawmakers said the measures would generate economic development and could speed the return of Sunni Arab ministers who walked out of the Shiite Muslim-led government.
Analysts cautioned, however, that Iraqi leaders remained deeply divided on key issues, including the distribution of Iraq’s massive oil wealth and the future of disputed territories such as oil-rich Kirkuk.
“These are issues that go to the heart of the differences between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds,” said Joost Hilterman, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. “We are far from out of the tunnel.”
Even as many Iraqi politicians celebrated a package of bills they said would foster reconciliation, some Sunni and Shiite representatives had walked out in a huff over certain clauses and the decision to hold one combined vote on the three measures.
At a news briefing in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker acknowledged that many challenges remained, but said the bills passed Wednesday were “important steps forward.”
“These are difficult issues,” he said. “They required a lot of effort, a lot of compromise.”
U.S. diplomats and military officials, who fear bloodshed could rise if the main Iraqi factions cannot agree on power-sharing arrangements, had been pushing leaders for months to take advantage of security gains to make progress on the political front.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that, in the last 24 hours, the Iraq central government has passed three laws that have been a big challenge,” Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a congressional hearing Wednesday. “That’s a lot of progress [and] the security environment having gotten better put them in a position to be able to do that.”
The bills passed Wednesday must still be approved by Iraq’s presidency council, comprising the president and two vice presidents, and questions remain about how they will be implemented.
The vote came after a stormy session that ended in the walkout by dozens of legislators and highlighted the lingering suspicions among the country’s majority Shiites, the ethnic Kurds and the Sunni Arab minority that was favored under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Having agreed to meet in a rare evening session to vote on the three measures, representatives started bickering Tuesday over the order in which they would consider them. Each faction feared that if the bill it wanted wasn’t approved first, other legislators might walk out before a vote and there would be no quorum.
Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni, resolved the matter Wednesday by announcing that legislators would approve each clause and then vote on the three bills as a package.
Some lawmakers complained that the strategy violated official procedure and walked out. But Mashadani and his deputy insisted that no rules had been broken, and enough legislators remained to approve the measures by a show of hands.
Mashadani, who Tuesday night had said he should disband the legislature and force early elections, told reporters after Wednesday’s session: “Today is [like] a wedding celebration for the Iraqi parliament.”
Before Wednesday, Iraqi lawmakers had approved only one of the bills pressed for by the United States: a measure that allows some former members of Hussein’s Baath political party to return to government employment or receive a pension.
Among the three bills was another measure that figures among U.S. benchmarks for progress: a framework for relations between the central government and provincial authorities.
Wrangling over the bill had repeatedly delayed provincial elections, which U.S. officials hope will bring more Sunni Arabs into office. Most Sunnis boycotted the local balloting in 2005 and are underrepresented in the central and northern areas where they dominate numerically.
Provincial elections could also help settle disputes among the main Shiite factions, which are locked in an increasingly violent conflict for power and influence in the overwhelmingly Shiite south.
The provincial powers act includes a clause calling for new elections by Oct. 1 in all provinces except those in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Parliament’s main Sunni bloc said the bill, which provides amnesty for some of the tens of thousands of mostly Sunni prisoners in Iraqi custody, could hasten its return to government.
“We consider it an important accomplishment that the front could market to its supporters,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a legislator and spokesman for the bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Six of their ministers walked out of the Cabinet in August, accusing Iraq’s Shiite leaders of refusing to share power. One of their major concerns was the plight of Sunni prisoners accused of participating in the insurgency, some of whom have languished in U.S. and Iraqi custody for years without trial. Under the new bill, thousands of those in Iraqi custody could be released, provided they have not been convicted of major crimes.
But a smaller Sunni faction, the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, said the amnesty measure did not go far enough and refused to vote on it. Saleh Mutlak, who heads the group, told journalists after the session that parliament should be dissolved because it was incapable of doing anything positive for Iraqis.
The record 2008 budget includes additional spending on salaries, economic development and reconstruction projects that lawmakers hope will create much-needed jobs, said Khalid Attiya, a Shiite deputy speaker of parliament.
Passage of the bill was delayed by squabbling over a demand by the Kurdish north that 17% of central government spending be directed to that region. Some Sunni and Shiite politicians argued that the region no longer accounts for that much of the Iraqi population, but agreed to allow it to retain 17% pending a census this year.
Lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr were not mollified by the compromise and also walked out.
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Saif Hameed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.