By BRIAN MURPHY
The Associated Press
Sunday, December 6, 2009 3:00 PM
BAGHDAD -- Iraqi leaders reached agreement Sunday to clear the way for parliament elections seen as an important step toward political reconciliation and easing the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The deal was reached after being mired for weeks over demands for greater political voice for minority Sunnis and the distribution of seats in Iraq's expanded 325-seat parliament in next year's election, said Omar al-Mishhadani, the spokesman for Parliament Speaker Ayad al-Samarie.
The accord needed final approval from parliament, which was called to an emergency late-night session moments after announcement of the accord. But no objections are expected from lawmakers since party bosses have backed the agreement.
The election is scheduled for Jan. 16, but a delay of a month or more now appears likely. The longer postponement could have complicated the withdrawal timetable for U.S. forces, which are scheduled to end combat missions in August.
The details of the pact were not immediately clear. But it appears to resolve objections from Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who has vetoed the election law to demand equal voting rights for Iraqis living abroad - mostly fellow Sunnis whose votes could increase Sunni clout in the next parliament.
Kurds also had objected to the distribution of seats among the country's 18 provinces, claiming they were being under-represented at the expense of Sunnis and majority Shiites, who suffered widespread repression under Saddam Hussein but took command of Iraqi's political leadership and security forces after his fall.
The new parliament will be expanded from the current 275 seats to 325, said Deputy Parliament Speaker Khalid al-Attiyah.
There was great pressure to reach an accord. Al-Hashemi's veto expired Sunday and he had threatened to reinstate it if his demands were not met - which would have sent the election planning process into a tailspin.
Earlier Sunday, gunmen killed four Iraqi policemen at a checkpoint west of Baghdad, police officials said.
The attack came as security officials warned of a possible rise in insurgent attacks before next year's election and the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops due by the end of August. It also follows an attack last month that left 13 dead in the same area.
Gunmen stormed the checkpoint in Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, at about 7 a.m. and killed one policeman on duty and three others on a break, according to two police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to the media.
Last month, 13 villagers in the Abu Ghraib area were killed in an attack possibly linked to tribal rivalries.
Witnesses said gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms abducted and killed the 13, whose bodies were later found with gunshot wounds to the head. They included a local leader of Iraq's largest Sunni party, which once helped fight al-Qaida.