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Kurdish, Sunni demands may derail Iraqi elections

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Kurds threatened Tuesday to boycott national elections, days after the country's Sunni vice president threatened to veto the newly passed election law needed to hold the January vote.

Barely a week after the long-delayed legislation was passed, the hard-fought deal appears to be hitting a major roadblock, threatening to derail the country's nationwide parliamentary elections and possibly slow U.S. plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.

The Kurds and Sunnis are unsatisfied with the allocation of seats in the next parliament, and are demanding more spots for their respective constituencies.

The boycott and veto threat come after lawmakers haggled for weeks over the election legislation they finally passed on Nov. 8, much to the relief of Iraqi political leaders and the United States, which lobbied hard for the bill.

"We knew that the Sunnis were unhappy, they made that clear from the beginning," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.

"Nobody knew that the Kurds were unhappy, too."

The Kurds originally supported the election law, voting in favor of it last week in parliament. But they say it was only over the weekend that they found out that their three provinces in northern Iraq had received fewer seats than they believe they deserved.

Under a proposal to expand parliament from 275 to 323 seats to reflect population growth, only three new seats were allocated to the Kurdish provinces, giving them a total of 38, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission's Web site.

Other regions saw a far larger jump in their number of representatives. Ninevah province, for one, which borders the Kurdish region, grew from 19 to 31 seats. Basra province in the south grew from 16 to 24 seats.

The office of Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani said the way seats are distributed under the new election law is unfair to Kurds.

"Unless this seat allocation formula is reconsidered in a just manner, the people of [the] Kurdistan Region will be compelled to boycott the election," a statement posted on Barzani's Web site said.

Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish member of Iraq's national parliament, said the Kurds had been expecting about 17 additional seats.

"The main point is the allocation of seats," Othman said. "If no changes are made on this matter then we will not participate in the elections."

Hiltermann, the analyst, said it's not clear what would be a realistic compromise.

"It's a matter of numbers, and numbers matter in any election anywhere in the world," he said.

The three northern provinces make up the Kurdish autonomous region, which has its own parliament as well as president. While Kurds have fought bitter battles among themselves in their regional politics, they have generally presented a strongly united front on the national political scene.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh criticized the Kurdish threat to boycott the election.

"There is a chance to solve this problem and the call to boycott the elections is not appropriate and does not serve democracy and the new Iraq," he told al-Arabiya television.

The Kurdish demands follow Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's threat Sunday to veto the election law unless voters outside Iraq are guaranteed more seats. Most Iraqis living abroad are believed to be Sunni.

Dominant for decades under Saddam, Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs have felt politically marginalized since the former dictator's ouster in 2003, boycotting the first post-Saddam national elections in January 2005.

Hiltermann said al-Hashemi's demands stems from Sunni fears of being sidelined once again.

"They need to have a sense that they're not being cut out from power," he said.

Washington has linked its withdrawal of combat troops to the national vote. U.S. military officials have said they will begin to draw down forces about 60 days after the election, hoping for assurances by then that Iraq is on stable footing.

Under a plan by President Barack Obama, all U.S. combat personnel must be out of Iraq by the end of August 2010. The rest of the troops, such as trainers and support personnel, must leave by the end of 2011.

"You have an electoral law that generally the U.S. is desperate to get it through parliament, and so move heaven and Earth behind it," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary college, University of London.

"So the law goes through, and then the big beasts of Baghdad politics start quibbling ... to try to get a better deal for their own sectarian interests."


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