Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009

Crucial Iraq election deadline looms

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

An Iraqi policeman reads an electocal committe information billboard urging people to update their voting record in Baghdad
An Iraqi guard reads a billboard urging people to update their voting record

Iraqi MPs have until Sunday to pass controversial legislation or face postponing parliamentary elections set for 16 January.

The poll is seen as crucial to the stability of the country, and any delay would likely impact on the US plan for withdrawal.

There are intense last-minute talks going on behind closed doors to try to forge a consensus over the law.

But parliamentarians are deadlocked over the format of the ballot paper, as well as the question of how the poll should be run in the divided city of Kirkuk.

The United Nations says that unless a law is in place by the end of the week, they may not be able to endorse the election.

Speaking of the Iraqi parliament, a spokesman for the UN in Baghdad, Said Arikat, said: "I hope they realise the enormity of the decision that rests on their shoulders."

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

Ad Melkert, the UN Special Representative in Iraq, earlier said it was now "crunch time."

There are fears that a delay to the elections could lead to more attacks, like the twin suicide bombing in Baghdad on 25 October, which struck at the heart of the capital's administrative district, killing more than 150 people.

It was the deadliest attack in Iraq for over two years.

Pressing matters

The dispute over the election law focuses on two controversial issues.

The first is the question of whether the electoral lists printed on the ballot papers should be "open" or "closed".

In other words, whether voters will be able to read the names of the individual politicians standing for office, or whether they will be asked to cast their vote simply for anonymous party blocks.

Many favour open lists as a more transparent and democratic system.

The second point of friction is the question of Kirkuk.

File photo of a worker at the Nahran Omar oil refinery near Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
Billions in oil revenue is one issue standing in the way of a compromise

The oil-rich city is home to three ethnic groups: Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds. There are disputes over the distribution of seats and the accuracy of the electoral roll.

Kurdish leaders claim Kirkuk as their own, and want the city eventually to be incorporated into the Kurdish Autonomous Region; the Arabs and the Turkmens insist Kirkuk's status should remain as it is, controlled from Baghdad.

At stake are billions of dollars worth of oil-revenue.

The United States still has around 120,000 soldiers in Iraq. But it wants to pull all its combat troops out by the end of August, in preparation for a full military withdrawal by 2012.

But that exit strategy now hangs in the balance.

If the elections are delayed, if the issue of Kirkuk cannot be resolved, or if there are more large-scale attacks, the Pentagon may have to revise its timetable.

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