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Iraqis agree to quotas on minorities

Susman is a Times staff writer.

Iraq’s parliament Monday approved quotas guaranteeing minorities a handful of seats on the governing bodies of Iraqi provinces, a move that helped pave the way to regional elections but angered Christians who had demanded greater representation.

In Baghdad, three bombings killed at least seven people, most of them at a busy square where twin blasts exploded seconds apart during morning rush hour. Another bomb north of the capital killed one person and contributed to a day of violence that underscored the ongoing tensions in Iraq even amid a period of relative tranquillity.

No date has been set for the provincial vote, but it is supposed to take place by Jan. 31 and has been heralded as key to rectifying lopsided power structures blamed for fueling sectarian violence. The minority quota formula approved by lawmakers would guarantee a total of six seats spread across three provincial councils to Christians and three smaller minority groups: Yazidis, Sabians and Shabaks.

Of the 150 lawmakers present, 106 voted for the plan. It sets aside one seat for Christian parties on the provincial councils of Baghdad, Nineveh and Basra. Sabians, a pacifist monotheistic sect, also will get one seat in Baghdad. Yazidis, another sect, and Shabaks, an ethnic minority, will each have one seat on the Nineveh council.

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Like Christians, the other groups have claimed persecution under the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi government and demanded special protection when parliament passed the law in September setting the stage for provincial elections. That law failed to include special considerations for minorities, prompting protests by Christian lawmakers and weeks of wrangling to come up with a solution acceptable to minorities and to the Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties vying for dominance.

The quotas are less generous than those in two other proposals that would have granted a total of either eight or 12 seats to minority parties, and the choice illustrates the fears and distrust among lawmakers in heavily contested, ethnically mixed areas.

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Sunni Arab qualms

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Nineveh, in northern Iraq, is particularly sensitive because of its mixed population of Sunni Arabs, ethnic Kurds, Christians and Yazidis.

Sunni Arabs had resisted setting aside large minority quotas on the 37-seat provincial council, fearful that minority groups might lean toward the Kurds and bolster Kurdish hopes of expanding their influence in the north. The 12-seat option rejected Monday would have set aside seven minority seats on the Nineveh council.

Hassan Alaf, a Sunni Arab lawmaker, said minorities would receive the number of seats they deserve based on their population in the region. “The decision . . . was very fair,” he said. “We believe granting one seat to each minority is pretty good and leaves decent room for the larger slates to compete fairly.”

Alaf noted that Christian, Yazidi or other minority politicians could increase their voices in Nineveh by running for office under the banner of large political blocs. That would give them more seats in addition to their guaranteed quota, if they had enough public support, he said.

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“This does not limit their participation or prevent them from nominating themselves in any slate,” he said. “This way, they can get more seats if they have a good number of votes.”

But Christian lawmaker Younadam Kanna denounced the vote as an “insult” and said it showed the “fanaticism and racism” of Arabs fearful of Kurdish influence. He said Arabs had feared that Christians would ally themselves with the Kurds and sabotaged this possibility by blocking the larger quotas.

Kurdish lawmakers said they had opposed the bill because it did not give Christians more guaranteed seats. “The voting of today showed who is fighting the Christians and who is supporting them,” said Arif Tayfur, a Kurdish political leader and legislator.

The deal must be approved by the nation’s three-person presidency council, and Kanna said he would demand a veto. Kurds succeeded in putting plans for provincial elections on hold when President Jalal Talabani vetoed an election bill that had been passed over Kurdish objections. That forced a renegotiation of the law and led to the version passed in September and tweaked in Monday’s voting.

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There was no indication that the Christians could force another veto, although their bitter objections raise the specter of heightened tensions in the north, which is at this point the country’s most violent region. The rest of Iraq has seen a sharp decline in bloodshed in recent months, but Monday’s attacks showed the lingering instability.

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Fatal bombings

The worst blasts occurred seconds apart in front of a police building during the morning rush hour in central Baghdad. Six people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy. Cars, shops and a restaurant were damaged, and the wounded included several police officers.

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A roadside bomb in east Baghdad targeting a police convoy killed one policeman. In Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, a car bomb in the parking lot of the provincial council exploded, killing one policeman and injuring 10 people.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Baqubah contributed to this report.

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