Iraq's parliament on Sunday passed a long-delayed law in a crucial step to setting up nationwide elections, and the head of the electoral commission said he did not expect any major delays in the vote planned for January.
In an indication of U.S. concern over the elections, including whether a delay might hold up the American troop withdrawal from Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill could be seen shuttling between various political factions in the hours leading up to the vote.
President Obama, speaking at the White House, welcomed the parliament's passage of the legislation.
"This is an important milestone as the Iraqi people continue to take responsibility for their future. I want to congratulate Iraq's leaders for reaching this agreement," Obama said. "The United States will continue to stand with Iraq as a strong partner and as a friend."
The elections were originally supposed to take place on Jan. 16, but may take place later in the month.
The head of Iraq's independent High Electoral Commission, Faraj al-Haidari, said after the vote that once the legislation is approved by the president and his two vice presidents, the election commission will decide how many days are needed to hold the vote.
Then the commission will send a letter to parliament and to the prime minister to inform them of their decision and al-Haidari indicated the commission would likely choose a date after Jan. 16.
"The date will be after Jan. 16, and I think it will be within one week after Jan. 16," he told The Associated Press. The Iraqi constitution mandates that the vote takes place in January, but not necessarily which day.
The law's passage had been repeatedly delayed by sharp disagreements over how voting would take place in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, claimed by both Arabs and Kurds and a major flashpoint in the country.
Kurds consider Kirkuk a Kurdish city and want it part of their self-ruled region. During the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced under a forced plan by Saddam to make Kirkuk predominantly Arab. The Arab-led central government vehemently opposes anything that would remove Kirkuk from its control.
Although there were few details immediately available on how the Kirkuk issue was decided, both Kurds and Arabs appeared to claim victory after the sometimes raucous parliament session ended.
The law passed with 141 votes, but it was not immediately known how many of the parliament's 275 members voted against the legislation or even attended the session. Low turnouts are common in Iraq's parliament, which often do not have enough people to form the necessary 138-person quorum.