Q&A: The Future of Provincial Voting In Iraq

Jalal Talabani

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani speaks during a meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House on June 25, 2008. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq's parliament has failed in yet another effort to pass a provincial election law. Lawmakers called an emergency session on Sunday to try to resolve an impasse over voting in the northern city of Kirkuk, but failed to gather a quorum.

The law is needed to lay the ground work for elections that many Iraqis hope will produce a more representative government and speed reconciliation of Iraq's religious and ethnic factions. The main stumbling block now is a dispute among Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds over who should control Kirkuk, a major oil center.

A previous draft of the law was vetoed by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who denounced it as unconstitutional.

Here's a look at what happened — and why it could be a threat to U.S. hopes for peace and stability in Iraq:

Why are provincial elections so important?

Sunni Arabs largely boycotted Iraq's national elections in 2005. Many were convinced that the election process was not legitimate; others were intimidated from voting by threats from Sunni insurgent groups. Failure to participate in the elections left the Sunnis with little influence or representation in Iraq's parliament.

Lacking political power, Sunnis could only stand by and complain that the Shiite-dominated government was cutting them out of government funding as well as jobs in the bureaucracy, the military and police. That discontent was a factor in the Sunnis' continued support for the insurgency.

The planned provincial elections would give Sunnis a chance to join the political process at the local level. Strong local governing bodies could provide basic services that the central government has been slow to deliver. The creation of strong provincial councils is also expected to dilute some of the central government's power.

What is the election law?

The election law provides funding and an administrative structure for holding provincial elections. Funding is not a concern for the Iraqi government, which is expected to reap nearly $80 billion in oil revenues this year. But the way seats would be allocated is a far more difficult problem, especially in areas that are disputed by the various ethnic and religious groups.

Passage of the election law is one of 18 "benchmarks" the Bush administration has set for showing that the Iraqi government is making process toward stability and reconciliation.

What's the key dispute over the election law?

The main dispute involves how council seats should be allocated in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. "Oil rich" is the operative phrase here: Whoever controls Kirkuk will also have a grip on a significant amount of Iraq's resource wealth.

The city is close to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north, and Kurds say it is a natural part of their territory. But the city has always been multi-ethnic: Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab. Former Dictator Saddam Hussein tried to manipulate the city's ethnic balance by moving Arab families there and pushing Kurdish families out. Arabs and Turkmens in Kirkuk have charged that Kurdish groups have been reversing that policy since the fall of Saddam, and packing the city with Kurds.

Kurds believe that they are numerically superior, so they favor a referendum that would decide whether Kirkuk and its surrounding province should be part of the Kurdish region. Arabs and Turkmens would like to see the central government retain control of the area.

Why did Kurdish lawmakers walk out on the parliamentary vote on the election law?

Fouad Masoum, the head of the Kurdish bloc, says his group objects to a provision that would have allocated council seats on the basis of ethnicity, with Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens each getting the same number of seats. He also objected to voting on the proposal in a secret ballot, a ploy that have might covered up any backroom deal making.

What's next for the law?

Iraqi leaders say they'll keep trying to pass an election law, but they're working against a parliament that's been trying to adjourn for a month-long summer recess in August. Iraqi election officials have said that, because of the delays, it may not be possible to organize a vote until December at the earliest.

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