Standoff over Iraq's election law goes on, threatening January's vote

BAGHDAD — Iraqi lawmakers blew another deadline Thursday as they continued haggling over an election law that's crucial to the country's political stability and to the Obama administration's plans for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops.

At one point Thursday, it appeared that Iraq's Council of Representatives had reached a compromise on the main point of contention: how the oil-rich, ethnically tense province of Kirkuk should be represented in the Iraqi Parliament. No deal was reached with the Parliament, however, and action was put off until at least Saturday.

The dispute among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen threatens to paralyze Iraq's brittle democracy. "We are in a crisis," said lawmaker Hassan al-Sined, an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The standoff is jeopardizing plans for national elections in mid January, as well as the timetable for a drawdown of 120,000 U.S. troops, even as President Barack Obama weighs sending tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan.

As Thursday's deadline passed, the head of Iraq's elections commission, Faraj al-Haidari, said the polls could still be organized if the elections law were passed Saturday. Earlier this week, he said Thursday was the cutoff date. Postponing the elections would throw Iraq into limbo.

The standoff is a matter of growing concern for the United States, which is attempting to use its influence, particularly with the Kurds. Vice President Joe Biden called Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament this week to urge a compromise, Iraqi officials said.

Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, has been a flash point for decades, and efforts to resolve its status have been put off repeatedly over the past five years.

The late dictator Saddam Hussein drove thousands of Kurds out of Kirkuk and surrounding areas and encouraged Sunni Muslim Arabs to settle there in an attempt to "Arabize" the strategic area. Since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein, Kurdish leaders have encouraged a reverse population flow.

Standoff over Iraq's election law goes on, threatening January's vote 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 11:46pm]

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