Iraqi lawmakers ended a governmental crisis Sunday by passing an election law just before a midnight deadline, after intense wrangling among the sides and, according to several participants, late phone calls from President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
The law paves the way for national elections to be held most likely by the end of February, according to U.N. officials and Iraqi lawmakers. The vote is considered a test of Iraq's democratic ambitions as American combat troops here are scheduled to start their withdrawal this spring.
The deadlock had threatened to revive simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions, as well as cast doubts on the legitimacy of the political process as parties appeared ready to indulge in electoral brinkmanship, with memories of civil warfare in 2006 and 2007 still fresh.
Negotiations went on from morning until night as Iraqi politicians and U.S. and United Nations diplomats huddled in the Iraqi parliament building. Sunday evening, many lawmakers were predicting failure as the Kurdish bloc held out for a higher number of seats than was promised in a compromise document that had been on the table for several days.
Shortly before the breakthrough, parliament Speaker Iyad Samarrai, a Sunni Arab, fretted openly about the looming prospect of failure. "At the end, we are risking the elections and the democratic process. Actually, we are pushing the situation towards a constitutional vacuum," said Samarrai, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards.
Biden, Obama speak to Kurdish leader
The tide was said to have turned only after evening phone calls from the White House to the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish nationalist considered deeply suspicious of the Arab motives and alarmed by America's imminent withdrawal. Biden spoke with Barzani for 50 minutes, and the Kurdish leader also talked to Obama, participants said.
Kurdish lawmakers said Barzani secured U.S. guarantees that an oft-delayed Iraqi national census would be conducted in 2010 and that the status of disputed northern territories -- including the oil-rich region of Kirkuk -- would be resolved according to the parameters of Iraq's Constitution.
The conversation paved the way for Barzani to accept the compromise number of seats in the next parliament, allowing blocs to gather the necessary 138-seat quorum to approve the law before their midnight deadline. Without an agreement, the sides risked a broader vacuum and the danger of one or more sides contemplating a boycott.
The high-stakes game amounted to a test of the Obama administration by Barzani, who had a better relationship with President George W. Bush, a hero to Kurds for ordering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Barzani had dispatched Kamal Kirkuki, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, to Baghdad to lead negotiations. Kirkuki held firm to demands for a larger share of parliamentary seats for Iraqi Kurds, warning that they would not be pressured by the Americans. "We respect them, but we have to defend our rights," he said.
Kurdish lawmaker Feryad Rawandozi said the White House was expected to make a statement today on its guarantees to the Kurds that came out of the phone calls with Barzani. Similar commitments were extracted from the United Nations, he said.
A version of the law had been passed last month only to be vetoed by Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq Hashimi, who complained that it did not provide enough seats for Iraqis who had fled the country during the sectarian warfare principally between Sunnis and the nation's majority Shiite population. Rather than lead to compromise, the veto exacerbated rifts.
Kurds, convinced they had been treated poorly in the first version of the law, in which they received only 38 seats for their three provinces -- compared with the 42 they hold now -- teamed with majority Shiite lawmakers to pass a new draft that took away seats from Sunni Arab provinces and gave them to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The version pushed through parliament provoked angry cries from Sunni lawmakers. Hashimi looked certain to veto the new law unless the sides came up with a solution before a Sunday night constitutional deadline. Shiite lawmakers appeared on the fence in the dispute, angry at Hashimi, whom they viewed as a spoiler, and also eager to push the election forward, regardless of the consequences with the Sunni community.
Sign of diminishing U.S. influence?
Some lawmakers pointed to the extended wrangling as proof that American power was diminished in contrast with previous years when the U.S. Embassy corralled Iraqis into making decisions. They pointed to Hashimi's initial veto and the two-month struggle to pass a law as proof that the Americans did not carry the same weight in their affairs.
Even after Barzani's calls from Obama and Biden, the agreement threatened to unravel as Kurds gathered in a scrum at one table in the parliament's cafeteria shouting a final time over whether to accept the compromise. Across the lunchroom, Sunni and Shiite lawmakers grilled U.N. mediators about the deal. With less than 30 minutes to midnight, the sides finally headed into session and legislators materialized who had been absent throughout the day as they rushed to make quorum for their emergency session.
The law that was approved ensured the Kurdish provinces would have 43 seats. The law provides for a 325-seat parliament and for voters to cast ballots for individual candidates as opposed to being allowed to vote only for a coalition or party slate as in the previous two national elections in 2005.
The law also allows for Iraqi citizens outside the country to cast ballots that count in their home provinces.
Hashimi praised the decision.
"All of our demands have been achieved. The displaced people have been treated fairly, the value of people inside and outside Iraq are the same," the vice president told Al Rashid satellite channel. "I am happy because of this accomplishment and I consider it a historic day in building the modern Iraq."
Giddy lawmakers cheered the vote and joked about celebrating at the hotel across the street. Ad Melkert, the U.N.'s representative to Iraq, left the building with a sigh of relief. "It was predicted it would go to 11:55 and it did," he said.
Salman is a Times staff writer. Staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.