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Iraqi election deal sealed at 11th hour

Analysis: Lawmakers on Sunday ended months of wrangling over an election law. Now for the hard part.

Iraq's parliament speaker Ayad al-Samarai holds a news conference in Baghdad, Dec. 7, 2009. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi lawmakers agreed just minutes before a midnight deadline on an election law Sunday, paving the way for parliamentary elections in February after months of political wrangling that laid bare Iraq’s sectarian politics beneath the veneer of democracy.

Political players said it was an evening phone call from United States President Barack Obama to Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, that broke the deadlock over the deal hammered out on the edges of parliament with the help of increasingly anxious U.S. and United Nations diplomats.

The last two months of election wrangling might have seemed at times the political equivalent of a broadway musical — full of twists and turns with at least a temporarily happy ending.

After weeks of delay that appeared aimed at keeping an election system in which voters could vote for parties but not individual candidates, parliament passed an election law almost a month ago adopting a more open system.

Barely before the celebration had died down, the law was vetoed by Iraq’s Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who said it disenfranchised several million Iraqis living outside the country — one of the major Sunni constituencies.

The Kurds, who had been focused on the side issue of Kirkuk during the election debate, belatedly looked at the seat distribution provided by election officials and realized that while Sunni and Shiite had gained seats because of a population increase, the Kurds had not.

“Hashemi’s move was a Godsend,” said a senior Kurdish official. The veto reopened the entire law for renegotiation, pushing the Kurds and Shiites together to lobby for more seats, ultimately at the expense of the Sunnis.

Sunday’s compromise allows ballots of voters outside the country, many originally from Sunni strongholds in Baghdad, Diyala Province and Mosul, to be counted in their home districts. The move ensures that those ballots won’t be wasted and maintains Hashemi's own political capital in the Iraqi expatriate community.

It also redistributed seats to give the Kurds three more than under the original election law — fewer than they had been seeking but enough to remove the threat of a boycott.