Iraqi election measure vetoed
Vice president's move could postpone vote, affect U.S. withdrawal

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 19, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Sunni vice president on Wednesday vetoed legislation to organize parliamentary elections in January, throwing the measure back to a fractious parliament that spent months haggling over it and threatening to further delay a vote the U.S. military has deemed essential to its plans to withdraw from Iraq.

The veto by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was the latest setback amid growing criticism of the election by the country's biggest minorities -- Sunni Arabs and Kurds -- both of whom are effectively demanding the allocation of more seats in the next parliament, which is almost assured of having a Shiite Muslim majority. Any change could have a bearing on which group emerges as the parliament's second-largest bloc, winning a pivotal role in determining who rules Iraq.

By blocking the legislation's passage, Hashimi cast Iraqi politics into turmoil yet again. While some sympathized with his insistence that the measure would provide too few seats to Iraqis living abroad, others accused him of grandstanding. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the veto "a dangerous threat to the democratic and political process." Some lawmakers even suggested that the election might be canceled or delayed past Jan. 31, the last date by which the constitution allows the vote.

"There is no time, mood or will among politicians to reach a deal," said Safia Sahhal, a lawmaker. "And if the election is delayed and we enter a constitutional void, it will open the door to attempts to overthrow the regime and to stage coups."

Frustrated election officials declared that they had suspended preparations for the vote, which was planned for between Jan. 18 and 21.

The legislation is necessary for Iraqis to organize the election, which will probably realign power here. The government that results will rule the deeply divided country as the U.S. military withdraws its 115,000 troops, and the Obama administration has deemed the vote crucial to the pace of that pullout.

The administration has set a target of August 2010 to withdraw its combat troops. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Wednesday that the U.S. military would maintain roughly the same number of troops here through May 1, by which time the United States hopes a new government will be seated. But with each delay in the election, that timetable will become more difficult to meet.

"In terms of difficult decisions, we're a long way off," Odierno said at a news conference. "And that would be based on whether we believe there's some sort of instability that would significantly change the path Iraq is on."

Parliament approved the legislation Nov. 8 after numerous delays. It was then sent to the Presidency Council, a three-member body made up of Hashimi, a Sunni; Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite; and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Under the constitution, each has the power to veto legislation. Abdul Mahdi and Talabani signed the election measure.

Hashimi said Wednesday that he was forced to veto the legislation because it would give too little representation to the millions of Iraqis forced into exile since 2003. They have sought refuge in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere and are predominantly Sunni Arabs. The veto, he said, was a move "to deliver [them] justice."

The veto came a day after Kurdish officials threatened to boycott the vote in the three provinces they control unless they were granted a greater share of seats.

Under the legislation, parliament would grow from 275 seats to 323 seats. Hashimi has insisted that the number of seats reserved for exiles increase from 5 percent to 15 percent of the total number. Kurdish officials have yet to insist on a number, but they contend that the three additional seats they were awarded are not enough. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said they had expected 15 additional seats.

Hashimi expressed hope that amending the legislation might take no more than a day and that he could then ratify it. But promises of quick action by Iraqi politicians have proved elusive in the past, and Hashimi appeared to be playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

For Sunni Arabs, greater representation of exiles could help them emerge as the second-largest bloc in parliament, with potentially decisive say in the choice of the prime minister and president.

Many Sunnis have expressed hope that they would fill the presidency, occupied since 2005 by Talabani. The veto also appeared to be a gambit by Hashimi to bolster his political standing, which has seemed to flag since he left the Iraqi Islamic Party, losing its grass-roots network.

But lawmakers were critical of Hashimi for waiting 10 days to use his veto. No one expects a potential compromise before Sunday, at the earliest.

"If it's not a crisis, we're not going to work on it," said Tanya Gilly, a Kurdish lawmaker. But she added, "It's difficult to foresee what's going to happen after today."

Correspondents Nada Bakri and Ernesto LondoƱo contributed to this report.

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