BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi political leaders reached a tentative compromise on Monday that may resolve a stalemate over the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and allow local elections to go ahead, the deputy speaker of parliament said.
Lawmakers rescheduled for Tuesday a vote on a provincial election law, which had been held up by wrangling over Kirkuk that has threatened to escalate into renewed ethnic strife.
Khalid al-Attiya, deputy parliament speaker and a member of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite bloc, said the parliamentary debate was scheduled “after fresh hope appeared of reaching an agreement”.
Washington has been pressing hard on Iraqi leaders to resolve the stand-off before it jeopardises the elections, originally scheduled for Oct. 1 and seen as vital to reconciling the country’s factions and solidifying its fragile democracy.
President George W. Bush has personally phoned senior Iraqi leaders to push them to compromise.
A vote had been planned for Sunday but it was scrapped when lawmakers failed to agree on how the elections would affect Kirkuk, which minority Kurds want to make part of their semi-autonomous northern region.
Although violence has fallen to its lowest level since 2004, Iraq remains a dangerous place. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and one was wounded on Monday when a bomb struck their vehicle in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
Iraqi forces captured an al Qaeda leader, known for his ferocity by the nickname al-Saffah (the butcher), in the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police launched an offensive in the area last week.
Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a member of the Shi’ite majority, gathered rival politicians at his home to broker an end to the stand-off over the elections, which the United States and United Nations are urging Iraq to hold this year.
Washington hopes the vote will ease sectarian strife by giving Sunni Arabs a greater political voice after they stayed away from the last local elections in 2005. But wrangling over the law has exposed a rift with another minority, the Kurds.
An initial vote to approve the bill last month was marred by a walk-out by Kurdish politicians, who oppose measures they see as robbing them of control of their ancestral capital.
The bill passed without Kurdish support, but President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, rejected it and sent it back.
If the vote on the bill is delayed until after parliament’s summer break, it could put the polls off until well into 2009. Lawmakers said the window for reaching an agreement was closing.
“If this issue is not solved in the next two days and the rivals do not reach to a compromise, the vote on the bill will be delayed until after the summer break,” said Hashim al-Taei, a member of the main Sunni Arab bloc.
One of the most divisive issues is whether the law will include a reference to a referendum on including Kirkuk in the Kurdish north. The referendum is called for in the constitution and Kurds believe it may tip the scales in their favour.
But Arab and Turkmen residents oppose making Kirkuk part of Kurdistan. Many Arabs moved to the city as part of Saddam Hussein’s bid to “Arabise” the area, and some now fear the Kurds want to drive them out.
The United Nations has been enlisted to help plan a referendum and says a hastily organised vote could trigger more violence. A week ago, more than 20 people died when a suicide bomber struck a protest by Kurds opposed to the election law.
The Kurds’ insistence on including the referendum article “brings the situation back to ground zero,” Taei said.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said Monday’s talks centred on a U.N. proposal designed to defuse tensions, which would set up a joint administration for Kirkuk as part of a temporary power-sharing solution.
In a rare foray into politics, a senior Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al Fayadh, urged Iraqis to vote in the provincial polls despite what he called a disappointing performance by the 2005 victors.
“Not taking part is a serious matter... It is the responsibility of everyone towards their country and themselves to take part in the elections in great numbers,” he said.