Asharq al-Awsat is reporting that the Iraqi Parliament has just passed the long-awaited electoral law paving the way for national elections on January 23rd - or some time in April, depending on what source you believe.
This is good news, and a big victory for the Kurdish Alliance. In fact, Kurdish MPs were so joyous when the law was officially passed, the chamber erupted into chaos and delirium reigned among the Kurdish factions.
The electoral law had been stalled in the Iraqi parliament for months due to disagreements between Kurdish and Arab MPs over how the elections would proceed in Kirkuk province. The Kurds have been wanting to use new, updated 2009 voter registries while the Arabs and Turkmen have been insisting on using the registries from 2004. The Kurds prefer the newer registries because their numbers have been growing stronger in Kirkuk since 2003. In order to reverse the Saddam-era policies of Arabization of Kirkuk (forced removal of Kurdish families from the mixed province), Kurds have been repopulating the province vigorously, at times even bringing non-Iraqi Kurds in to boost their numbers. Indeed, concerns are ripe on the Arab side that the Kurds have been stacking the province with non-natives in order to fix the demographics in their favor. The concession to use the 2009 registries represents a major coup for the Kurdish Alliance.
Apparently, the US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, played a key role in getting this legislation passed. I have had reservations about Hill's team in Iraq so far. Rumors abound that the team he brought with him is short on regional and local expertise. However, getting this law approved may just represent quite a significant feather in his cap. The US desperately needs elections to proceed on time so the Obama administration can proceed on schedule with troop withdrawals.
Keep in mind that this could spell trouble ahead. By using the 2009 voter registries in Kirkuk, the Kurds may be able to score big in national elections and further increase their leverage in negotiations over the status of Kirkuk. A strong Kurdish turnout in that province could significantly up the ante in terms of Arab-Kurdish tension in Iraq, and may make the restoration of some sort of sustainable political equilibrium that much harder to achieve after the national elections are over.