BAGHDAD - President Obama and Vice President Biden intervened personally to save an agreement allowing Iraq's elections to proceed, U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday, highlighting the stakes in the deal for an eventual American troop withdrawal.
In a telephone call Sunday with Massoud Barzani, the powerful president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Obama and Biden persuaded him to withdraw the Kurds' objections to an elections law, Kurdish lawmakers said. Iraq's parliament approved the deal late Sunday in Baghdad, ending months of sectarian wrangling that have delayed the elections.
Iraqi lawmakers said the White House pledged to help deal with Kurdish concerns, particularly a swath of disputed territory that both Arabs and Kurds claim. But those promises appeared to fall short of hard guarantees to solve the disputes clouding Iraq's future.
No final date has been set for the elections, but they are expected to take place around Feb. 27, about a month late.
"They pressed the Kurds to accept," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading independent Kurdish lawmaker. "That had an important effect in the Kurds' accepting the resolution, in spite of it not being ideal" from their viewpoint.
Last month, Barzani, who heads the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, had threatened a Kurdish boycott, saying the draft elections law did not assign enough parliamentary seats to Kurdish regions.
It was one of numerous objections based on sectarian politics that stalled the law. The final deal gave three additional seats to the Kurds and reflected Sunni Muslims' demands for greater representation.
While Obama, Biden, and U.S. diplomats in Baghdad were able to stave off another political crisis, their intervention raised anew questions about whether Iraqis could find consensus without constant prodding from outside.
With U.S. troops set to conduct major withdrawals beginning next spring, "it's a worry," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the private International Crisis Group.
"In the absence of an overarching political deal that would have to be brokered by the Americans" before the withdrawal, it's unclear what Iraqis can accomplish on their own," Hiltermann said.
Biden is the president's point man on Iraq and, according to Hiltermann, has spoken with Barzani three times in recent months.
Obama's personal involvement was unusual, however, and it underscores the stakes in Iraq's convoluted and time-consuming politics. As Obama sends 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he wants to withdraw American combat forces from Iraq by next August in an atmosphere of political stability.
Iraqi lawmakers said the White House pledged to help implement an article of Iraq's new constitution that defines how to settle the disputed territories, particularly oil-rich Kirkuk. The president also promised support for a national census. Iraq has not had a complete census since 1987.
In a statement, the White House said simply that Obama and Biden confirmed the U.S. commitment to a long-term relationship with Iraq, including the KRG.