Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:34am EDT
* Dispute sent to high-level council
* Kirkuk impasse may mask real reason for disagreement
* One more week before election date in doubt
By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Iraq's fractious parliament failed on Wednesday to agree on a law that will determine how the next election is run, raising fears that the vote may have to be delayed.
The Jan. 16 parliamentary election is seen as crucial for consolidating democracy after years of war. The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Ad Melkert, warned that time was critical and that further delays in passing the legislation may call into doubt not only the date, but also the credibility of the result.
"It is the collective responsibility of members of parliament to now rise to the occasion and be ready to account to the Iraqi people, who expect to exercise their right to express their preference in the upcoming elections," he said.
The elections will be a critical test as Iraq emerges from more than six years of sectarian conflict unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and begins to stand on its own feet ahead of a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.
"This situation is so embarrassing," said Faraj al-Haidari, head of the electoral commission. He said the body could wait at most another week before the election date would be in doubt.
Agreement over the framework for the election was initially thwarted by a dispute over what kind of voting system to use -- open lists, under which voters can pick individual candidates, or closed lists, under which they can only pick parties.
This week, the dispute has focused on how votes should be distributed in the contested city of Kirkuk and its rich oilfields -- a flashpoint for possible conflict between minority Kurds and Iraq's majority Arabs.
Kurds view Kirkuk as their ancestral home and want it included in their semi-autonomous northern enclave. Arabs, who were encouraged by former dictator Saddam Hussein to settle in Kirkuk to dilute Kurdish influence, oppose such a move.
The United Nations proposed Kurds be given a '50 percent plus one' share of the vote in the city, to reflect the return since the 2003 invasion of thousands of Kurds. Arab lawmakers said no.
REASON FOR STALLING?
Baha al-Araji, head of the parliament's legal panel, said lawmakers had referred the dispute to a council made up of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, Iraq's two vice presidents and other political leaders.
"Any agreed formula that comes out of the council meeting will be read and voted on in parliament next week," he said.
"Regrettably, some political blocs are stalling, using pretexts like Kirkuk to delay passing the law."
Political insiders say Kirkuk may just be a convenient smokescreen. The impasse may still have more to do with the initial disagreement over the election system to be used.
The Shi'ite-led alliance, which has dominated Iraq since the last election in 2005, has unravelled, and the January poll will primarily pit Maliki against his former Shi'ite Muslim partners. Open lists are viewed as likely to benefit Maliki, who is seeking credit for a sharp drop in overall violence.
His main rivals, the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and supporters of fiery anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, publicly state they support open lists, but many believe the groups would fare better under closed lists. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Aseel Kami; Writing by Michael Christie; editing by Jack Kimball and Mark Trevelyan)