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Iraqi Leaders Veto Law on Elections

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 28, 2008

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- Iraqi government leaders on Wednesday rejected a law requiring nationwide elections by the fall, sidetracking a measure that U.S. officials consider a key benchmark for political reconciliation in Iraq.

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Parliament passed the legislation two weeks ago. The veto by Iraq's presidency council was an unexpected setback.

Lawmakers will now have to reconsider the measure, which they agreed to only as part of a three-law package reached after weeks of political wrangling. The dispute became so divisive that some called for the dissolution of parliament. The two other laws -- Iraq's 2008 budget and an amnesty that could apply to thousands of detainees in Iraqi prisons -- were approved by the presidency council.

"This is a huge disappointment," said the Shiite deputy speaker of parliament, Khalid al-Attiyah, through an aide. "The political blocs all agreed on this law before. Now we will have to try to start all the deals and agreements from the beginning."

The legislation was vetoed because of the opposition of Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite vice president who sits on the three-member presidency council, according to his aides and other lawmakers. The council must approve all laws unanimously. Abdul Mahdi's aides said he believed the law was unconstitutional and would put too much control in the hands of the central government instead of the provinces.

"We need a law that will dismantle the centralization and make Iraq a federal government with power to the governors and provincial councils," said Hamid al-Saedi, a lawmaker who, like Abdul Mahdi, belongs to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest Shiite party in parliament.

Passage of the law, which delineated the scope of provincial powers, was considered a crucial step not just because it fleshed out the constitution's definition of Iraq as a federal state, but because it would have required provincial elections to be held by Oct. 1. The last nationwide elections took place in 2005.

The presidency council -- its two other members are President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and the country's other vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni -- remains firmly committed to holding the elections by Oct. 1, according to Naseer al-Ani, a spokesman for the panel. Aides to Abdul Mahdi said he expects planning for the elections to go on even as parliament reconsiders the bill.

But Western diplomats said they worry that most of the political parties have no incentive to ensure elections are held, because many are likely to lose out to newly formed parties or those that boycotted the 2005 elections.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, for example, now controls much of the local government in southern Iraq. But if elections were held, it might lose many of those positions to the movement of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which did not take part in the last provincial contests. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the powerful Sunni party led by Hashimi, might lose power to new Sunni politicians affiliated with the U.S.-backed Awakening movement that began in the western province of Anbar.

"Everyone says that they are all for provincial elections, but there is a lot of foot-dragging going on here," said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to damage relationships with his Iraqi counterparts. "I think a lot of these politicians would be happy if elections never took place."

Abdul Mahdi was most concerned about two provisions in the law, his aides said. One would have allowed the national parliament to remove provincial governors in certain circumstances; the other would have given parliament control over aspects of individual provincial budgets.

Also Wednesday, the head of the Iraqi national journalists union, Shihab al-Tamimi, died after he was shot by unknown gunmen over the weekend. More than 175 journalists and media support workers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.


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