Iraqi parliament deadlocks over Kirkuk

Iraqi lawmakers on Wednesday scheduled an emergency weekend meeting during summer recess to resolve disagreements that have blocked a provincial elections law and threaten a new wave of bloodshed in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, the AP reported.

The proposed law has raised ethnic tensions in the oil-rich area, which is emerging as one of the biggest threats to U.S.-backed efforts to heal the country's sectarian rifts and prevent a resurgence of violence.

The standoff over control of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, is also the latest example of Iraqi political deadlock despite impressive military gains against Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

Parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani scheduled a special meeting for Sunday after a deadline passed for the elections law to be ratified in time for the lawmakers' monthlong summer break, which began after Wednesday's session.

"The committee discussing Kirkuk could not find a solution and has asked for more time," al-Mashhadani said. "The problem of Kirkuk is a complicated one, and failure to reach a solution will lead to more bloodshed."

The law enabling elections in Iraq's 18 provinces would divide the ruling council in Tamim - of which Kirkuk is the largest city - equally among Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs. But Kurds and their allies now hold a majority on the Tamim provincial council and oppose any move that would diminish their power.

Kurds consider Kirkuk part of their historical homeland, and are seeking to incorporate it into their semiautonomous region to the north. Arabs and most Turkomen want the Kirkuk area to remain under central government rule.

Tensions escalated Monday after a suicide bomber in Kirkuk struck during a Kurdish demonstration against the legislation, killing 25 people and wounding 187.

The U.S. military and local officials said al-Qaida in Iraq was behind the attack. But dozens of angry Kurds stormed the offices of a rival Turkoman political party believing that the ethnic minority was to blame.

Meanwhile, protests against the election bill have drawn thousands of people daily.

With negotiations at a standstill, U.N. officials put forward a compromise, suggesting provincial elections be delayed in the Kirkuk area while going ahead in the 17 other provinces, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press from an Iraqi lawmaker.

It suggested a committee should offer new recommendations on the issue so parliament can set a date for the vote by Dec. 31 at the latest.

Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Daini welcomed the proposal.

"The only option we have is to delay the provincial elections in Kirkuk, but meanwhile we should have guarantees for the equal distribution of power there," he said.

Failure to compromise on a new law establishing rules and funding for the U.S.-backed provincial vote will likely force the vote to be delayed until next year. Under previous legislation, the election had been scheduled for Oct. 1, but will now probably be put off until December at the earliest.

Lawmakers pushed through a draft of the elections law earlier this month despite a walkout by the Kurdish bloc, but the measure was vetoed by the presidential council, which is led by a Kurd, Jalal Talabani.

U.S. officials have pushed hard for the elections, considered a necessary step toward national reconciliation. Many Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial balloting in January 2005, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power at the local level.

The U.S. military has expressed hope that security gains from an American troop buildup would enable the Iraqi government to make political progress.

But the Iraqis have been unable to push through key laws needed to establish guidelines and funding for the provincial elections and to govern the equal distribution of oil. Both issues have bogged down because of Kurdish objections.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also failed to approve a supplementary budget of $21 billion after the Kurdish bloc walked out of parliament to protest the elections law.

"We have walked out in protest to link this with elections law," prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. "We will not vote for the budget until we vote for the election law."

Finance Minister Bayan Jabr said the additional funding would increase the overall budget to $70 billion this year and was needed for government expenditures on food rations, fuel for power plants and raises for civil servants.

Parliament's summer recess began as the U.S.-backed Iraqi military pressed forward with a new operation aimed at routing al-Qaida in Iraq-led insurgents from Diyala province, one of their last major strongholds near the capital.

The house-to-house search operations, focused on the provincial capital of Baqouba, will be extended to rugged areas near the Iranian border, said Ibrahim Bajilan, the head of the regional council. He said the crackdown involved about 50,000 Iraqi police and soldiers, and would last about two weeks.

Diyala has been one of the hardest provinces to control despite numerous military operations. Baqouba has enjoyed security improvements recently but continues to see attacks, such as twin suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people on July 15 and a number of suicide attacks carried out by female bombers.

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