Baghdad Iraqi lawmakers end their summer break this week facing urgent tasks of approving a new election law and signing off on a still-unfinished security pact with the U.S. - key steps in laying the foundation for a lasting peace.
The 275-member legislature failed last month to approve a law providing for provincial elections this fall after Kurds objected to a power-sharing arrangement for the oil-rich area around Kirkuk, which they want to incorporate into their self-ruled region in the north.
U.N. and Iraqi election officials warn the balloting cannot be held this year unless parliament approves the measure quickly after it reconvenes Tuesday.
But weeks of private meetings and contacts among Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers have failed to produce any breakthrough on the issue, and it was unclear whether the bill would win speedy approval.
U.S. and Iraqi officials believe new elections in Iraq's 18 provinces are an essential step to building a long-term peace among the country's rival religious and ethnic communities. Voters will choose provincial councils, which wield considerable power at the local level.
Many Sunnis and some Shiites boycotted the last provincial election, in January 2005, enabling Shiite religious parties and the Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power at the expense of the Sunnis.
During the upcoming session, parliament must also ratify a security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq governing the status of U.S. troops here after the U.N. Security Council mandate expires at the end of the year.
But the talks have hit an impasse over U.S. insistence on retaining sole legal jurisdiction over American troops in Iraq and differences over a schedule for the departure of the U.S. military. Iraqi officials want all foreign troops out by the end of 2011.
The Iraqis offered unspecified proposals last month to break the deadlock and are expecting a reply from Washington this week, Iraqi officials said on condition of anonymity because they weren't supposed to talk about the negotiations.