Iraqis Reach Last-Minute Election Deal; February Vote Possible

Baghdad — Iraqi lawmakers reached a minutes-to-midnight deal late Sunday, clearing a path to national elections early next year that are seen as crucial to a smooth U.S. troop withdrawal.

The Iraqi parliament approved a revised elections law that expands the parliament from 275 to 325 seats, and redistributes them among the country’s 18 provinces to satisfy sparring religious sects and ethnic groups.

No final date for the elections was set, but the United Nations has proposed that they take place Feb. 27. The elections were supposed to have taken place in January, a date made moot by weeks of political fighting that increasingly took on sectarian overtones.

The elections, and Iraq’s political stability, are critical to President Barack Obama’s hopes of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops by August 2010, leaving some 50,000 U.S. military personnel here.

The final deal, voted on at about 11:45 p.m. Baghdad time, came only after repeated intervention by U.S. diplomats and U.N. advisers here, according to Iraqi lawmakers and other officials.

They said that Obama administration officials pushed hard on leaders of Iraq’s ethnic Kurds to accept fewer seats than they were demanding for their semi-autonomous northern region. The Kurds’ eventual, if reluctant, agreement sealed the deal.

“If it wasn’t for the American intervention in the first degree … the law today would not have passed,” said Salih Mutlak, a Sunni Arab lawmaker. “This is the first time that the Americans use wisdom and logic and pressure the Kurds.”

“The Americans didn’t place pressures, but they gave us important guarantees and tomorrow the White House will probably issue a statement about it,” said Feriad Rawanduzi, a Kurdish parliament member. The guarantees, he said, include a census next year in Iraq _the country hasn’t had one since 1987 — and U.N. help in settling Arab-Kurd disputes over a broad swath of territory, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

“We must say that the result was acceptable to a certain limit, there was no other alternative,” Rawanduzi said.

Parliament passed an original elections law Nov. 8, but it was vetoed by one of the country’s two vice presidents, Tariq el Hashimi. Hashimi, a Sunni complained that it didn’t give enough representation to an estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country, many of whom are believed to be Sunni Muslims.

Sunday night’s session took place under the threat of another veto by Hashimi if his demands were not met, and the specter of a political vacuum and reignited violence.

In the end, all sides appear to have won something from the deal. Sunnis got greater representation, Kurdish areas increased their seats in parliament from 35 to 43, and Shia Muslims, who form Iraq’s majority, also got more clout.

While agreements have been reached in the past only to fall apart, there were high hopes that this one would stick. Hashimi withdrew his veto threat early Monday morning.

“We are talking about rescuing the whole political process … democracy in Iraq,” said Omar al Mashhadani, spokesman for parliament speaker Iyad Samarrai.

Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent.