By Timothy Williams and Sa’ad Izzi, www.NYTimes
BAGHDAD — After weeks of political stalemate, Iraq approved a law on Sunday to administer a critical national election in January, a significant milestone for its fragile democracy and a step that will allow the rapid withdrawal of American combat forces early next year.
The election, only the second national vote since the fall of Saddam Hussein, will be a crucial step toward popular sovereignty and stability in Iraq. But the election law had been stymied by a political battle over the northern province of Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, each of whom hoped electoral power would give them control of the region’s oil wealth.
The compromise reached Sunday, which satisfied all three groups, was hailed by Iraqi and American leaders as a triumph for Iraq’s emerging democracy and a demonstration of Parliament’s ability to resolve sticky sectarian disputes for the national benefit.
“Accomplishing this law is not a victory for anyone in particular, but a victory for the entire Iraqi people,” said Faryad Raundozi, a member of Parliament’s Kurdish Alliance.
The United States had said that a delay of the election could set back the scheduled withdrawal of American combat troops.
On Sunday, President Obama called the Parliament’s action “a significant breakthrough” that would ease fears about an American military withdrawal.
“This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq, and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq said in a statement that the passage of the law had been a “historic victory of the will of the people” and a “strong response” to those seeking to undermine Iraq’s democracy.
American military commanders have said they intend to begin a rapid withdrawal of the 120,000 American troops still in Iraq after the election. The United States has pledged to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of next August, leaving about 50,000 troops in an advisory and support role. All American troops are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2011.
After the vote, the American ambassador to Iraq, Christopher R. Hill, said the withdrawal would proceed as planned. “What is important is that with the election law, we are very much on schedule for the drawdown,” he said.
American and Iraqi officials hope the election will cement democracy here at a time when many people have grown discontented with their leadership and fed up with continued violence, corruption and high unemployment.
The previous parliamentary vote, in 2005, was boycotted by many Sunni Arabs, an act that allowed the insurgency to fester and fueled subsequent sectarian bloodshed. This time, each of the major political parties and Iraqi’s major religious and ethnic groups have all said they will participate.
Khalid Ataya, the deputy speaker of Parliament, told members of the legislature that they were taking a momentous step in the country’s young democratic history. “The Parliament has done something important for the people of Iraq,” he said. “This is a big blow to terrorists.”
As an indication of the election’s importance to the United States, Mr. Hill was seen shuttling back and forth between the offices of various political parties all day Sunday in an effort to pressure them to reach a deal.
“Go upstairs and vote!” he shouted at a pair of slow-moving lawmakers as they climbed a set of stairs to the chamber before the session.
The election had been scheduled for Jan. 16, but as the parliamentary session ended late Sunday, officials said it appeared that it would be delayed by a few days to give election officials time to print ballots and to make other preparations.
For weeks, the legislature had wrestled with how to determine voter eligibility in Kirkuk, which sits on billions of barrels of oil. The issue threatened to undermine the election, and Parliament’s inability to resolve it had become a symbol of Iraq’s political dysfunction.
Tens of thousands of Kurds were forced out of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein, who replaced them with Arabs in order to tighten his grip on the region’s oil. Since the United States-led invasion that ousted Mr. Hussein in 2003, thousands of Kurds have moved back.
Arabs and Turkmens in Kirkuk had favored using voter registration lists from 2004 or 2005, while Kurds wanted to use voter rolls from 2009 that reflected their substantially higher numbers.
The agreement reached Sunday, brokered by the United States and the United Nations, will use voter lists from 2009, but if the number of eligible voters in a particular area is deemed by members of Parliament to be suspiciously high, a committee overseen by the United Nations will be formed to determine whether fraud has occurred, according to a draft of the law.
The compromise satisfied each of the groups competing for dominance in Kirkuk. “We have passed a stage, a crisis, and no one is a loser,” said Abbas al-Bayti, a Turkmen legislator.
Osama al-Najafi, an Arab legislator, said: “There will be no injustice for the people of Kirkuk. This is a great victory for their historical rights.”
The election will also allow voters to choose individual candidates as part of an “open list,” as opposed to the closed-list ballot in which voters pick political parties, who in turn choose people to occupy seats in Parliament.
The 2005 election used a closed list, which helped protect candidates from assassination, but it strengthened organized parties rather than individual candidates and was unpopular with voters.
The new law, which also reserves a quarter of the next Parliament’s seats for women, must be approved by President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents, which is expected to happen in a few days.
Under the Constitution, the election must take place before the end of January, but an important Shiite religious observance comes during the last week of that month.
Hamdia al-Hussaini, a member of the Independent High Electoral Commission, the Iraqi government agency that oversees elections, said Sunday that the vote would have to be delayed at least several days past the scheduled date of Jan. 16.
“It can’t be held on the 16th because Parliament was late in passing the law,” she said.
On Sunday, some Sunni Arab members of Parliament said they were unhappy about interference with the legislation by the United States, particularly the American insistence that elections not be delayed.
“Unfortunately, the Americans are insisting on certain dates more than they are insisting on the objectivity of their decisions,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of Parliament.
Parliament has the final decision about when to hold the election.