BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s parliament must pass a contentious elections law by mid-September in order to allow anticipated provincial polls to be held this year, the Electoral Commission said on Saturday.
“If the law is passed by September 9 or 10, we can hold the elections on December 22. If it’s later than that, we will try for December 31,” Commission head Faraj al-Haidari told Reuters.
If the elections law has not been passed by then, the polls will slip into next year.
Further delays in the provincial vote, initially scheduled for October 1, are certain to frustrate Washington, which sees these elections as central to its efforts to help reconcile Iraq’s rival factions and strengthen its fledgling democracy.
The law has been held up by an impasse over how to treat the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which minority Kurds regard as part of their traditional homeland.
The city’s Turkmen and Arabs, many of whom moved to Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein’s policy to “Arabize” the city, reject the Kurds’ ambition to make it part of their autonomous northern region.
In early August, parliament adjourned for its summer break after lawmakers failed in last-minute negotiations to find a compromise on how Kirkuk will be treated in the elections law.
An earlier version of the law was vetoed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and sent back to parliament.
U.S. and U.N. officials hope the elections will give a voice to Sunni Arabs and some Shi’ite factions that stayed away from previous local elections, but it does risk becoming a power struggle among Shi’ites.
The vote is seen as important in helping the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki translate the sharp drop in violence over the last year into progress in rebuilding Iraq’s economy and infrastructure, reforming and modernizing government, and fending off renewed bloodshed.
Yet it will not be easy for lawmakers, who are due to resume work around September 9, to quickly resolve their differences over an explosive issue such as Kirkuk.
Some Iraqi politicians have criticized the United States for pressuring Iraq to hold the vote right away.
Another question is how many Iraqis, weary and hardened after more than five years of war, will show up to vote.
Haidari said that, following previous elections, around 17 million Iraqis were registered. Some 2 million have come to election centers to double-check their registration, he said.