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Iraqi logjam over elections law has U.S. anxious

BAGHDAD — An impasse over a law crucial to organizing next year's Iraqi elections is illustrating more starkly than ever the United States' dwindling ability to shape Iraqi politics and settle disputes.

U.S. and U.N. officials have grown increasingly worried in recent days as Iraqi lawmakers have continued to put off a vote amid bickering over how to hold elections in the disputed city of Kirkuk. Because the stalemate threatens to delay the elections, and a delay could paralyze the Iraqi government, U.S. commanders may be forced to re-evaluate whether to postpone the pullout of their troops.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill has spent hours in Iraq's Parliament in recent days trying to narrow the divide between Sunnis and Kurds over Kirkuk.

Vice President Joe Biden called Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Sunday and asked him to nudge the Kurds in Parliament to get behind the latest U.N. plan to end the deadlock.

American officials are finding that they can do little these days other than ask and prod. The vote is scheduled for Jan. 16, two weeks before the constitutionally mandated deadline for an election.

"The sense I got is that the Americans are more worried about this than the Iraqis," said Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from a trip to Iraq. "I think it will be done in an Iraqi time frame, five minutes past the eleventh hour."

Kurdish lawmaker Serwan al-Zahawi said he and his colleagues welcome U.S. input but made clear that a call from Biden is not what it used to be.

"The advice and recommendations he makes on some issues is seen as practical and acceptable," he said. "But they are not compulsory. We are not bound by them."

Kirkuk has a long history of conflict

The dispute over oil-rich Kirkuk is not new. The city is the most contested along a 300-mile frontier of disputed territories claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. It was excluded from provincial elections this year because lawmakers were unable to agree on how to divide seats there. Saddam Hussein forcibly displaced Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding areas during his reign. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurdish officials offered Kurds incentives to move back, causing the city's Kurdish population to swell dramatically. Kurds want election officials to use current voter rolls. Sunnis demand that older rosters be used, saying many of the current residents are not legitimate Kirkukis.

Iraqi logjam over elections law has U.S. anxious 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 10:52pm]
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