BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi parliamentarians failed on Sunday to pass a law on provincial elections, putting the date of important polls in doubt and leaving unresolved a political standoff that has stoked ethnic tensions.
After struggling for hours to reach a quorum, lawmakers indefinitely postponed a special session they had called to pass the law, which has come unstuck over plans for the disputed northern city of Kirkuk and angered minority Kurds.
The delay may mean the elections, originally planned for October 1, could be put off until next year. Electoral officials have said they need months to plan once the law is passed.
The elections are seen as a crucial test of Iraq’s fledgling democracy. It would be the first time Iraqis have voted since the thick of an insurgency in 2005 and could dramatically alter the sectarian and ethnic makeup of powerful regional posts.
Deputies originally passed a version of the law last month, but Kurdish lawmakers boycotted that debate over its plans for Kirkuk, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, rejected the bill as unconstitutional.
Iraqi Kurds want to integrate Kirkuk, which they see as an ancestral home, into their nearby autonomous region. Many of the ethnically mixed city’s Arabs and Turkmen want it to stay under central government control.
Lawmakers did not say when they would reschedule the debate, but political leaders continued meetings to seek a compromise. Parliament officially began a summer break last week.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said a compromise was close at hand and parliament would hold another vote when faction leaders signal they have reached a deal.
“We are waiting for the white smoke to rise,” he said. “There is hope, and many disputed issues have been removed and there are guarantees for all parties.”
The fate of Kirkuk has sparked street protests in the past week. A suicide bomber killed at least 20 people during one demonstration in Kirkuk nearly a week ago. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has called for calm.
The version of the law vetoed by Talabani would have delayed voting in Kirkuk, given fixed allocations of city council seats to Kirkuk’s three main ethnic groups and replaced Kurdish security forces there with troops from other parts of Iraq.
The issue is boiling up as violence across Iraq has dropped to levels not seen since early 2004 and the Maliki government is negotiating a security deal with Washington that would set a “time horizon” for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
But violence flared again in Baghdad on Sunday when a car bomb killed 12 people and wounded 22 others in a Sunni Arab area of the capital, police said.
Major car bombs are now relatively rare in Baghdad, where a semblance of calm is returning more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein.
Some fear the Kirkuk tensions could jeopardize the security gains and steps toward greater political stability.
The provincial elections, which will select councils governing each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, will provide early clues on how Iraq’s Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions and other minority groups will fare in national elections in 2009.
Washington believes the law will help reconciliation because minority Sunni Arabs will take part after boycotting the last local elections in 2005. They are under-represented in local government in areas where they are numerically dominant.
Writing by Missy Ryan, editing by Peter Graff and Robert Hart