Iraqi MPs stall deals on Bush benchmarks · Provincial elections likely to be delayed until 2009 · Suspicion of foreign firms slows progress on oil Jonathan Steele The Guardian, Saturday June 28, 2008 Three key US-backed measures on oil, provincial elections and the future of US troops are mired in the Iraqi parliament, raising doubts as to whether they can come into effect before George Bush leaves office. Once listed as a crucial "benchmark" allowing the US president to claim success in Iraq, the provincial elections look likely to be delayed until next year. The oil law, which nationalist MPs blocked last summer over fears that foreign companies would take over Iraq's major resource, is facing the same problem again. The pact to permit US troops to remain in Iraq is equally sensitive, and was described by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, this month as being in stalemate. Intensive US-Iraqi talks on new drafts have resumed and, after meeting Bush in the White House this week, President Jalal Talabani tried to sound optimistic. "We have very good, important steps towards reaching to finalise this agreement," he said. Many MPs complain that it will give the US excessive rights. David Satterfield, the US state department's senior adviser for Iraq, refused to put a date on finishing the talks. "No agreement will be reached unless it meets Iraq's requirements with respect to sovereignty, authority and decision, and unless Iraq's leaders believe this is an agreement they can defend to their people," he said. He appeared to confirm Iraq's oil minister Hussain al-Shahristani's disclosure to the Guardian last week that Iraq was insisting on a veto of US military operations, including the arrest of Iraqis. "We respect, we acknowledge the primacy of that Iraqi sovereignty, that Iraqi national decision ... They certainly inform the context of the Iraqi positions." The pact will allow US bases in the country, even though they may fly the Iraqi flag. Many Iraqis fear that the US wants a long-term presence. "We very much see these arrangements as transitional," Satterfield said. Meanwhile, chances for the provincial polls to take place this year hang in the balance. Satterfield said: "The elections law really must be complete by the end of July because there's a specific timeframe for other steps that must be taken." Unlike the closed lists used in 2005, which helped big parties, a consensus is emerging for a hybrid system. Voters will be able to elect independents and rather than selecting an entire party list, they will have to mark each preferred candidate so the top names have no advantage. Elections in the disputed city of Kirkuk are likely to be deferred. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans cannot agree on registration lists because Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds and brought in Arab settlers. Each community claims to have a demographic majority. The Kurds control the council so deferral helps them. The Kurds have reluctantly agreed to postpone again the referendum on self-determination, required by Iraq's constitution, in Kirkuk and other regions with large Kurdish populations. Iraq's Arab parties and western diplomats argue that a referendum could spark new inter-communal violence. Rows between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, which has defied the federal government by signing oil deals with small foreign companies, are making the passage of a new oil law difficult.