Impasse Ended, Iraqi Election Can Proceed
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Lawmakers in Iraq have approved a plan for national elections. The elections will come a little bit later than expected, but they will come. This is hardly the first time we've heard of a reported Iraqi political breakthrough over the last six years or so of war. Only one thing makes this different: If that election takes place smoothly, American troops plan to start leaving the country.
NPR's Corey Flintoff is covering this story in Baghdad. He's on the line. Hi, Corey.
COREY FLINTOFF: Hi, Steve. How are you doing?
INSKEEP: Doing fine, thanks very much. What is now supposed to happen over the next few months?
FLINTOFF: The Iraqi Election Commission says that it can put together an election, print ballots, get them distributed, set up polling places and get that all done by late February, which is about a month after the election was originally set to take place. If the election goes well - that is to say, if there's not an Afghanistan-style political scandal or there's not violence associated with the election or the post-election period - that means that within 60 days, American troops could start withdrawing. General Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, told us a few weeks ago that he's comfortable with the idea of starting to withdraw his combat troops as late as May. If it went any later than that, it would pose significant headaches for getting people out of the country.
INSKEEP: Let me make sure I understand what you're talking about. The United States has a commitment to withdraw all its combat troops by when?
FLINTOFF: By September. We're now looking at a number that's somewhere around 105,000, because there's been a certain amount of attrition, there's been a drawdown by simply not replacing people. After September, there will probably be as many as 50,000 troops who remain in a kind of advisory and training capacity.
So we're looking at getting about 60,000 American troops out of the country in the period roughly from May through August. And that's a daunting task under any circumstances. But General Odierno thinks that that is a reasonable timeline. If the election were to go any later than that, then it would start to get pretty complicated.
INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Corey Flintoff, who is in Baghdad, where lawmakers have now approved a plan for national elections to be held early next year. And Corey, I'd like to know what delayed Iraqis as they debated the plan for this election over the last several weeks?
FLINTOFF: Well, it's a bit like apportionment in the United States. The question was whether the various minorities in Iraq would get the apportionment that they felt they were entitled to.
Tariq al-Hashimi, the vice president who is a Sunni Arab vetoed an original version of the law, because he felt that it didn't give adequate representation to Sunni Arabs. The Kurds in Iraq's north were also complaining that they didn't feel that they got enough seats.
INSKEEP: It sounds like this is another version of this classic debate we've heard about for years in Iraq, the division between Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. What is this decision to go forward with the election mean for those differences, if anything?
FLINTOFF: Well, it seems to mean that people feel that they've gotten relatively fair numbers of seats in Parliament under this arrangement. The arrangement apportions these seats around the various provinces of Iraq, which are pretty divided along sectarian lines.
But we're seeing that the various political groupings are forming political alliances in advance of the election that are - that cross sectarian lines. So it may mean that the Sunnis feel that if they got enough seats in Parliament, they'd be in a position to put themselves into ruling coalitions.
INSKEEP: Meaning that people are not purely dividing based on these three groups at the moment.
FLINTOFF: Absolutely not. And the provincial elections that were held last January showed that non-sectarian secular candidates actually did fairly well. So it seems that they may not divide along the traditional lines, at least as much as they did in the 2005 election.
INSKEEP: NPR's Corey Flintoff is covering this story in Baghdad. Corey, thanks very much.
FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Steve.
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