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The long-delayed election law passed by Iraqi parliamentarians last week clears the way for national elections to be held in January. U.S. President Barack Obama has called it an important milestone toward ensuring lasting peace in Iraq.
“The decision by the parliament to finally approve an election law is one of the most important actions in many, many months – if not years,” said Roy Gutman, international editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain. Recently on temporary assignment in Baghdad, Gutman says not to have approved it would have been a “disaster” for Iraq.
One of the thorniest issues that had prevented major ethnic factions – Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen – from reaching agreement earlier was the status of the northern city of Kirkuk and its surrounding region. What the new election law establishes, Gutman said, is that Kirkuk and Kurdistan are going to remain part of Iraq. “This is the kind of issue that could have split the country because Kirkuk sits on so much oil,” he explained.
A Kurdish Perspective
“Most Kurds are happy that an agreement was reached,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the National Assembly. “It shouldn’t have taken so long, he added, “but that’s Iraq. Sometimes things take too long.”
An Arab View
“Last week’s agreement demonstrates a new maturity on the part of Iraqi parliamentarians is taking root,” according to Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center. “Arabs and Kurds are starting to believe that maybe Iraq is on the right path, and these parties are putting their national interests ahead of their own personal and sometimes regional interests,” Bilbassy said.
“At the same time, it seems that Iraqis are breaking away from U.S. influence and getting together to decide what is best for Iraq,” Bilbassy argued.
U.S. Interests Still a Factor
But Gutman suggests that U.S. officials – including Ambassador Christopher Hill, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden – were probably quite influential in facilitating cooperation, especially by the Iraqi Kurds. “The United States has a special relationship with the Kurds in that it had become their defender after the first Gulf War and in some ways their protector during the latter part of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Washington also has a vested interest in facilitating January elections, Bilbassy noted. “For them it is linked to their interest in withdrawing American troops. Any delay in the election law, which in turn would delay the date of Iraqi elections, would delay American withdrawal from Iraq, she explained.
Bilbassy suggested there were probably guarantees from both American and United Nations officials about the conduct of a population survey of the disputed Kirkuk area after the January elections. “The Kurds were forced to leave during the period Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and then after the American invasion, a huge number came back,” she explained. “And of course the Sunni Arabs accused the Kurds of exaggerating the numbers because they harbored the ambition of annexing it to the Kurdistan Regional Government in the future.”
Is it a Win-Win Solution?
It may be that all sides will benefit from the political agreement that last month few analysts were predicting would pass. “Not only can Iraqis determine their own future, but they can also some of their most difficult problems,” Gutman said.
“Furthermore, Americans can take comfort that Iraq is moving in the right direction, even if there is not complete security and stability right now,” Gutman suggested. Under those circumstances, a U.S. force withdrawal “of the sort that is now being organized” appears feasible, he said.