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Analysis: Passing of Iraq election law brings relief

U.S. officials made unwanted compromises, but can now turn their attention toward troop withdrawal.

Abbas al-Bayati, center, a Turkmen member of the Iraqi parliament, speaks to the media after voting on an election law at the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Nov. 8, 2009. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — American officials breathed a huge sigh of relief this week as Iraqi lawmakers finally herded themselves into parliament and voted through an election law for parliamentary elections in January.

The voting, taken up to the constitutional deadline that would allow for elections to be held at the end of January, was a relief for Iraqi officials as well. But more so for the senior U.S. diplomats who had spent weeks trying to reconcile Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen intent on holding onto power while they still could.

Embassy officials, barred from the parliament sessions — along with journalists — hovered around the edges of committee meetings and patched through phone calls from an increasingly edgy White House to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Arab officials.

As has been the case for much of the past six years, the U.S. seemed to experience a series of diminishing expectations.

After pressing for the most open of elections — one that would allow voters to choose individual candidates rather than just parties and coalitions — they began re-evaluating as the deadline loomed.

“We’re not going to keep pressing for an open list — at this point we just need them to pass a law,” said one senior U.S. official.

While the election is crucial to Iraq and its chances for stability, it’s also crucial to the U.S. being able to withdraw its troops as promised by 2011 without having to look back and see the country unraveling as they leave.

“Had these deliberations gone on, then new decisions would have had to be made,” about the pace of the withdrawal, said the U.S. chief of mission here, Ambassador Chris Hill, after the vote.

For many Iraqi officials, the U.S. is already essentially gone.

“Of course they were relieved — all they care about now is leaving,” said one senior Iraqi official.

It’s a view that seems to differ among those whose political fortunes are tied to a prompt U.S. withdrawal and many of the troops on the ground, who are scrambling to make a difference in the time they have left.

But the perception that the U.S. has disengaged has led to a diminished ability to influence events here. A 90-minute phone call between U.S. Vice President Biden and Barzani urging him to compromise on how voting would be conducted in Kirkuk had essentially no effect, said one senior Kurdish official. “Barzani told him he would think about it,” said the official, with more than a little glee that the Kurds seemed to have their fair-weather American friends over a barrel.