Iraq's parliament passed a law Tuesday meant to pave the way for provincial elections despite a Kurdish boycott, but critics warned it's unlikely the vote will be held this year as had been expected.
U.S. officials see the voting as another key step in national reconciliation, but the draft law setting guidelines and allocating funds for the elections has been stalled by political disputes as Iraq's myriad ethnic and sectarian factions jockey for power.
The sticking point on Tuesday was a Kurdish objection to an item in the new law that calls for a secret ballot to decide on a power-sharing arrangement in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds and two deputy parliamentary speakers walked out of the chamber in protest, but the parliament went ahead with the line-by-line vote and passed the law with a quorum.
Deputy parliamentary speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, said the secret ballot was unconstitutional and accused the lawmakers of "arm-twisting."
He also pointed out that the measure must now go to the presidency council led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who he said was likely to reject it.
"It is foolish and absurd to pass a law that has been rejected by an entire bloc," al-Attiyah said at a news conference. "Regrettably after doing this, I do not see any chance for the elections to be held in this year if this process continues."
The law stated that the elections should be held no later than Dec. 31.
The move came two days after Iraq's election authority proposed delaying the start of provincial balloting from Oct. 1 until Dec. 22.
Al-Attiyah and the Kurdish deputy parliamentary speaker Arif Taifor suggested even the December target date was optimistic.
"The provincial elections cannot take place this year because this law will be rejected," al-Attiyah told The Associated Press.
The provincial election plan — strongly backed by Washington — would shift more political powers to regions and is viewed by Sunni Arabs as a way to counter the influence of the Shiite-led government.
But any prolonged setbacks could hamper efforts to allow Sunnis a greater voice in political and security affairs — considered essential to stabilize the country and maintain pressure on al-Qaida in Iraq and other militant factions.
The Kurds opposed a proposed equal distribution of provincial council seats among Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs in the northern Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital. The oil rich city is outside the semiautonomous Kurdish territory but is considered by many Kurds to be part of their historical land.
The Kurds also are pressing the government to hold a long-delayed referendum in Kirkuk on whether to join the Kurdish area.