January election in Iraq? Doubtful

Hopes for a January election in Iraq faded Monday after Shiite Muslim and Kurdish legislators teamed up to vote for a new version of an election law that in effect takes seats away from Sunni Arabs and is almost certain to draw another veto from the country’s Sunni vice president.

Parliament then adjourned for a holiday until Dec. 8, leaving in limbo the fate of the law that is needed if the crucial election is to take place by the end of January, as mandated by Iraq’s Constitution. The withdrawal of U.S. forces has been pegged to the timing of the poll, and a delay could jeopardize President Obama’s promise to bring all combat troops home by August 2010.

The head of Iraq’s election commission told the Associated Press that he doubted there was now enough time to hold the poll by January. “Most probably, it might be moved to February,” Faraj Haidari said.

Though that would violate the terms of the constitution, lawmakers seemed unconcerned about the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

“Nobody’s applying the constitution anyway,” said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, who predicted the election would be delayed. “We are in a mess now, so it doesn’t make a lot of difference.”


The protracted battle over the election law has again exposed the sectarian fissures that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war earlier in the decade, in a troubling reminder that the country’s factions still have not resolved most of the major differences that divide them.

In a rerun of scenes that were common during the height of the bloodshed in 2005 and 2006, fuming Sunnis stormed out of the parliamentary session, leaving the main Shiite and Kurdish alliances that dominate the legislature to vote overwhelmingly for amendments that will take away seats from Sunni provinces and add them to Kurdish ones.

The amendments did not offer any extra seats to Iraqi refugees, who include many Sunnis, and therefore did not address the complaint that prompted Vice President Tariq Hashimi to veto the original law last week.

Kurds had subsequently threatened to boycott the poll because they didn’t like the way seats had been distributed by the election commission. They took advantage of the veto to recast the law, with the help of Shiites, in a way that would give the Kurds a greater portion of seats in an expanded parliament than provided under the version passed last month.

Sam Parker of the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace estimated that the new formula will take seven seats from Sunni provinces and give them to Kurdish ones. “This is truly a scandal,” he said. “I bet Hashimi is kicking himself.”

Iraq’s president and two vice presidents have authority to veto legislation.

Sunni lawmakers, enraged that the veto had resulted in a law even more unfavorable to their interests than the previous measure, vowed to reject it.

Lawmaker Osama Nujaifi called on Sunnis to take to the streets to protest the law. Though Shiites and Kurds have enough votes in parliament to override a second veto, the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha will push back the process until well into December, leaving little time for preparations for the poll.

The latest revisions also raise the possibility that Iraqis will go into this election as bitterly divided as they were the last time around, when many Sunnis boycotted the balloting, and that the legitimacy of the vote will be challenged.

Ahmed is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau. Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.