BAGHDAD Iraq's provincial elections, seen as vital for fostering national reconciliation, could be delayed because of disputes in parliament over the electoral law, several lawmakers said on Sunday.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said the elections will be held on Oct 1, but a dispute has emerged between Arab and Kurdish lawmakers over what to do about voting in the disputed oil rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
"There are many problems hindering us from agreeing the provincial elections law. One of the main problems is Kirkuk," Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, head of the parliamentary bloc from the ruling Shi'ite Alliance, told Reuters.
"I think it will be very difficult to hold elections on time."
The electoral commission has said the draft law must be passed by the start of July to give it three months to prepare for the polls. U.S. officials have said the elections could be delayed until November, but have not elaborated.
The fate of Kirkuk, a mixed city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen that sits atop rich oil fields, is already one of the most divisive issues in Iraq.
Minority Kurds, who control the northern Kurdistan region, see Kirkuk as their ancient capital and want a constitutionally mandated referendum to be held to decide its status. Arabs encouraged to move there under Saddam Hussein want the city to stay under Baghdad and have been wary of a vote.
Given Kirkuk's status had not been resolved, Arab and Turkmen lawmakers said they wanted a separate law to govern voting in the city. Kurd lawmakers have rejected this proposal.
Some Arab and Turkmen lawmakers had also suggested sharing power in the city evenly between Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. But Kurdish lawmakers said the provincial election results should be used to determine control of the city.
"We completely reject the suggestion of drawing up a special law for Kirkuk. We call for elections in the whole of Iraq on the same day," said Mehsin al-Sa'doon, a senior Kurd lawmaker.
He said Kurds were prepared to reach a political consensus on dividing up control of the city once elections had been held.
Sagheer said Arab and Turkmen supported establishing a separate law for elections in Kirkuk.
"We have our point of view regarding the demographic changes in Kirkuk since 2003," he said.
Arabs believe Kurds have stacked the city with Kurds since the downfall of Saddam in 2003 in an attempt to tip the demographic balance in their favour in any vote.
Given the impasse, lawmakers said on Sunday that parliament had agreed to delay its summer recess until early August, when it would take two months off. Parliament had been due to break for vacation from the beginning of July.
Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiya suggested a committee that comprised Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen lawmakers meet continuously for a week to find a solution.
Washington says the elections will promote reconciliation by boosting the participation of minority Sunni Arabs in politics. Sunni Arabs boycotted the last local polls in January 2005.
Analysts say the elections will also be the battleground for a fierce power struggle among majority Shi'ites.
Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab lawmaker from the Iraqi National list, said the Kurdish demands could delay reaching a solution.
"I don't believe this problem will be solved soon," he said.
(Writing by Dean Yates, Editing by Mariam Karouny)