BAGHDAD – A top Shiite lawmaker urged parliament Monday to restore quotas for Christians and other small religious communities on ruling provincial councils that voters will select in balloting by Jan. 31.
Parliament had dropped the quota system, in place in six of Iraq's 18 provinces, citing a lack of census data on how many Christians, Yazidis and other religions were still in those areas.
But Christians, believed to comprise less than 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, complained that the change would effectively exclude them from representation in a political system where most people vote along religious lines.
"We do not want to immigrate to the U.S. or Britain — we want to stay in Iraq and have our representatives in both the provincial councils and the legislature," the Rev. Louis al-Shabi said at a rally of dozens of Christians at a Chaldean church in Baghdad.
Deputy parliamentary speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, said none of the political parties intended to deny Christians and others their rights and that the matter should be solved urgently.
"We hope that this issue is solved as soon as possible and an article is added in the law, giving a number of seats to the minorities," al-Attiyah said. "It should be for psychological reasons."
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, fearing attacks by both Sunni and Shiite religious extremists. Christian leaders say that assuring them of limited representation would help preserve the community and give it a stake in Iraq's figure.
"We want to live in peace and want this representation because it refers to our existence," said a 37-year-old mother, who gave only her nickname Um Noor, who was at the rally with her 5-year-old daughter.
U.S. officials have been anxious for provincial elections to help redress a political imbalance in many local governments since the last local balloting in January 2005. Many Sunnis boycotted the election, enabling Kurdish and Shiite religious parties to gain a disproportionate share of power.
Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's independent electoral commission, said it would be impossible to hold the vote this year as originally planned but his commission would do its best to meet the Jan. 31 legal deadline. The date for the vote will be announced within two weeks, he added.
In preparation, the independent elections commission will start registering candidates and political blocs on Oct. 15, he said. Officials also need to update voter lists, design the ballot papers and other technicalities.
In a sign of improvements, authorities this week tore down a concrete wall in the flashpoint neighborhood of Fadhil erected to separate Sunnis and Shiites. Volunteer guards manned a checkpoint Monday where the wall once stood.
Although a network of walls and checkpoints throughout Baghdad have helped cut down on sectarian killing, the barriers have drawn widespread complaints from Iraqis, who find them disruptive and an obstacle to moving conveniently through the city.
Also Monday, a plane carrying Iraq's Sunni parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was turned away by Iran. The Iranian news agency later said the problem was the type of plane and not with the speaker.
An aide to al-Mashhadani said Iran later offered an apology and said a private plane would be sent Tuesday.