Page last updated at 12:46 GMT, Monday, 12 October 2009 13:46 UK

Iraq election reform troubles UN

Iraq election
International observers say the revised law is 'vital' in the process of democratising Iraq

By Jim Muir
BBC News

The UN special representative in Iraq has expressed concern at the failure of the Iraqi parliament to approve a revised election law.

The country faces a general election in January that is widely seen as crucial.

But political differences have so far held up agreement on a revised legal framework for the poll, and time is running out.

With three months to go until the poll, there was still no clarity in the law, the representative, Ad Melkert, said.

2003: US appoints Governing Council
2004: Governing Council elects interim government
Aug 2004: National conference elects interim national assembly
Jan 2005: First general elections for transitional national assembly and provincial councils - Sunnis boycott vote
Dec 2005: General elections for first full-term government and parliament
Jan 2009: Elections for provincial councils - key test of security gains
Jan 2010: General elections due

In an unusual intervention, Netherlands-born politician Mr Melkert said his mission was concerned that there was still confusion in the law which he described as a "vital milestone" in the process of democratising Iraq.

Both the UN and the Iraqi Higher Election Commission, which are working together to administer the poll, are urging the Iraqi parliament to approve an amended election law by the end of this week.

Otherwise, they say it will be necessary to postpone the elections for some time, a step that would be unconstitutional and might also mean a delay to President Obama's plans to have all US combat forces out of Iraq by the end of next August.

The Americans are watching the January elections closely, seeing them as a step towards stabilising the country further and consolidating its institutions.

Competing interests

But there are many problems holding up agreement in parliament on changes to the existing election law.

They include differences over the minimum age for candidates and their educational qualifications, and over what constituency basis should be adopted.

There are also concerns over arrangements for the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north and the question of whether electoral lists should be "open" or "closed".

In other words, whether people will be able to vote for named candidates, or just for the competing factions and parties, which would then decide who to give seats to.

If no agreement is reached, the closed system would prevail under the old law which governed the 2005 election.

But many leading figures, including the very influential Shiite religious authority Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have insisted that the vote must be open, and there are fears that the turnout will be low if the closed system remains in place.

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