The passage of Iraq's new election law in a down-to-the-wire session of parliament means that U.S. combat troops are a step closer to beginning their phased withdrawal from the country next year.
U.S officials were concerned that continued Iraqi political wrangling could upset the timeline. More than 100,000 American troops are currently serving in Iraq, and most would depart under the plan. Under an Iraqi-U.S. security agreement, about 50,000 remaining troops serving in advisory roles would leave by the end of 2011.
Just before a midnight deadline Sunday, Iraq's parliament approved a compromise on the distribution of seats among Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups in the next parliament. The vote clears the way for elections early next year, probably in late February.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the troop withdrawal could begin 60 days after the country's national elections. "That would then be based on if we believe there's some sort of instability that would be created that would significantly change the path that Iraq is on," he said.
U.S. forces would have to be prepared to postpone their departure in case the election's winners took a long time to form a government or if there was resurgent violence.
"I think we're set up, and we're flexible enough for between now and the first of May, frankly," Odierno said. "And so I'm confident that we won't have to make any decisions until the late spring."
An agreement on the election law was reached on Nov. 8, but Tariq al-Hashimi, a vice president of Iraq and a Sunni, used his veto authority, claiming it was unfair to Iraqis living outside the country. Wrangling over the allocation of seats in Iraq's parliament continued, with a U.N. official warning that the election date might have to be pushed into March unless a compromise was reached.
Ayad al-Samarrai, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, said Monday that the U.S. and the United Nations ramped up their efforts to get Iraqi lawmakers to reach a solution. Samarrai said both the U.S. and the U.N. pressured all parties to accept a compromise.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill prefers the term "engagement" rather than "pressure."
President Obama and Vice President Biden telephoned top leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government just before the final agreement was reached. The White House did not say what the president and the vice president discussed in those calls.
Hill said the U.S. has promised the Kurdish leaders that it would help take some of the guesswork out of the future allocation of seats in parliament — the biggest sticking point in the negotiations.
"We've assured them and we've assured others that in working with a new Iraqi government, that is, after there is an Iraqi election, we will assist Iraq with its obligation to try to complete an accurate census countrywide," he said.
Hill said both he and Odierno are confident that the withdrawal can proceed as planned.
But the U.S. must make sure it has enough troops in place to help the Iraqis maintain security during and after the election, he said.
"But at the same time, we need to live up to the conditions of our commitment to withdraw or cease combat operations by the end of August and to make sure that we achieve the troop reductions," Hill said. "And that, too, required that the elections take place in a timely way, so I think we're on schedule here."