BAGHDAD: The official charged with carrying out Iraq's crucial January polls warned Wednesday that they will be delayed if parliament doesn't approve a key electoral bill.
Any delay in the January 16 elections could plunge Iraq into a crisis, undermining the government and leading to instability just as American troops are preparing to withdraw, a process that's scheduled to ramp up after the vote.
Election Commission Chairman Faraj al-Haidari said Parliament must approve a new electoral law when it convenes on Thursday, otherwise the January 16 polls will be delayed.
Iraqi lawmakers have been arguing for weeks over the election law, which is needed to implement the vote. The key stumbling block has been who should be allowed to vote in Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich city north of Baghdad that is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.
Al-Haidari said he warned the legislators that if they don't approve the election law by the end of Thursday, the vote will not happen on January 16.
"We informed the parliament that if the election law is not legislated within 48 hours, it would be difficult and impossible to carry out the elections," al-Haidari told The Associated Press.
Kirkuk has been a source of controversy for decades. Under former leader Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were forcibly displaced under a plan to make Kirkuk predominantly Arab. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, many Kurds returned but now other groups claim there are even more Kurds than before Saddam evicted them.
For the Kurds, Kirkuk has an extremely symbolic importance, and they consider it their "Jerusalem." But the Arab-led central government vehemently opposes anything that would remove Kirkuk from its control.
Money also comes into play because the region is home to vast oil fields. A referendum on the city's future, required by the constitution, has been repeatedly postponed.
The immediate question lawmakers have been wrestling with is who will be able to vote in Kirkuk when the election goes forward. Kurds generally have favored using a 2009 voter registry, which likely reflects the Kurdish population growth. Arabs generally prefer a 2004 voter registry, when the Kurdish population was not as large in Kirkuk.