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Iraqi lawmakers missed an important deadline today. Elections are due to take place in January and the parliament's job was to decide what kind of electoral system it wanted by today.

Its failure to do so could affect the United States, which wants to get going on major troop withdrawals soon after elections are over.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has more.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The Iraqi parliament is still debating between open or closed lists for the upcoming elections. Four years ago, Iraq had a closed list. The ballot named only political parties without specific candidates. It simplified the process and protected individuals from violence.

But most Iraqis agree that it's better to cast votes for individuals - an open list. In fact, almost all of the parties say they want open lists, says Ahmed al-Abyad, an independent politician.

Mr. AHMED AL-ABYAD (Parliamentary Candidate): The major parties who is in the parliament, all of them say on media that we need the open list. But when they come in the internal closed meetings, all of them, they never allow to be open list.

LAWRENCE: The parties feel threatened by an open election, says Abyad, because it could vote out some of the unpopular party leadership. But with public protests for open elections and even the support of Iraq's most important religious figure — the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — it has political suicide to favor the closed list. Instead, parliament has stalled, perhaps hoping that once the deadline passes, Iraq can revert to the 2005 election law with closed party lists.

One political party is bypassing the dispute: Muqtada al-Sadr's populist Shiite Movement is holding a primary.

Mr. SALAH AL-OBEIDI (al-Sadr Spokesman): The parties will be forced to choose popular people within their lists.

LAWRENCE: Salah al-Obeidi is a Sadr spokesman.

Mr. AL-OBEIDI: This will lead to a big change in the map of Iraqi political figures. And it will lead into big change into the map of Parliament groups also. Which is very important for the future because there is no more trust between people and the politicians, because for six years the suffering of Iraqi people is continuing.

LAWRENCE: By holding a primary, the Sadrists will make sure that their candidates, even in a closed-list system, have a public stamp of approval. They've registered 300,000 voters across the country and accepted almost 700 candidates. Anyone over 15 can register for the primary, though the voting age for the national election is 18.

Candidates must have a college degree, be at least 35 years old, and never have worked with the Americans, who the Sadrists consistently refer to as the occupiers.

One thing candidates don't have to be is a member of Sadr's movement. Haider Farhan, professor of Islamic Art at Baghdad University, has decided to run in the primary. He gathered a small group of students for a campaign event near campus.

Professor HAIDER FARHAN (Baghdad University): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Elections are a human right that was endorsed by Islam 1,400 years ago, says Haider - still much in the style of college lecture. He says he's running for a spot on the Sadr list, because it's the only one that is now open to the will of the public.

His students ask a few questions and then the meeting breaks up.

Shahad Udday is an art student and she's going to vote for Professor Haider in the primary but probably not support other Sadrist candidates. She prefers more secular politicians.

Ms. SHAHAD UDDAY (Student): (Through translator) They don't mix between religion and democracy.

LAWRENCE: Parliament is now expecting to vote on the election law this Sunday, but that may also be delayed. If Iraq does not carry out elections by January, it will raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the government. American officials made a rare public statement this week, urging the swift passage of the law.

Providing security for the election is supposed to be the last major mission for U.S. troops in Iraq, after which they're planning to start pulling combat troops out of the country.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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