BAGHDAD – Iraq's parliament overwhelmingly approved a provincial elections law Wednesday, overcoming months of deadlock and boosting U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.
But the lawmakers acknowledged the delay in passing the legislation would make it difficult for the electoral commission to organize the vote and pushed back until Jan. 31, 2009 the deadline for it to be held.
The legislation had been bogged down in a complex dispute between Arabs and Kurds over power sharing issues in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds seek to incorporate into their semiautonomous region in northern Iraq.
Agreement was reached after Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Turkomen lawmakers adopted a U.N. compromise to form a parliamentary committee to review disputes regarding Kirkuk separately so the elections could go ahead elsewhere.
The new law would require the committee to present a report with recommendations for a separate legislation on Kirkuk by March 2009.
It also banned the use of religious authorities, mosques and government institutions as part of campaigning for the political parties.
U.N. envoy Staffan di Mistura, who has shuttled between the political blocs to pressure them to approve the law, said preparations for the vote would begin immediately.
"Today is an important day for Iraq and democracy as the parliament found a compromise over the election law," he told The Associates Press. "This will help Iraq and Iraqis to express their opinions by voting for their candidates in the provinces."
The measure still needs to be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd who vetoed the last attempt by parliament to push through a measure over Kurdish opposition.
A senior electoral official said it could take four to five months after the law is adopted to finalize preparations for the vote.
"We need 140 to 150 days from the day we receive it in order to complete all the preparations to hold the elections," Faraj al-Haidari said. Much work, including staff training and the selection of voting centers, must be completed, he said.
Kurdish legislators agreed to the latest proposal, suggesting presidential approval was more likely.
Kurdish lawmaker Khalid Shewani said his bloc was reassured that the committee would review property disputes in Kirkuk and would work in accordance with the Iraqi constitution, which had called for a referendum on the city's status by Dec. 31, 2007. Some Sunni Arabs have argued that the relevant clause in the constitution, adopted in 2005, was no longer valid.
"We succeeded with this committee to resolve a question that had been complicated for some four months," Shewani said. "Every side had fears but these fears have disappeared after the inclusion of legal guarantees. We thank God that we reached this agreement."
Parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, said passage of the law showed that Iraq's fractured ethnic and religious groups could work together.
"In the past, Kirkuk was the mother of all troubles, but today it has become the symbol of Iraqi unity," he told a news conference.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the elections are an essential step toward building a long-term peace among the country's rival religious and ethnic communities. Voters will choose provincial councils in 14 provinces, which will wield considerable power at the local level.
Excluded from the legislation were the three provinces that comprise the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq as well as Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk.
Many Sunni Arabs and some Shiites boycotted the last provincial election, held in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power.
U.S. officials have complained privately that Iraqi politicians have failed to take advantage of the sharp drop in violence — down 80 percent since last year, according to the American military — to forge lasting power-sharing agreements.
The provincial vote had been due to be held as early as Oct. 1.