- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s presidential council on Wednesday rejected a draft provincial elections law and sent it back to parliament for reworking — a major blow to U.S. hopes that the vote can be held this year.

The decision was likely to delay the elections until next year because there would not be sufficient time to make the necessary preparations. U.S. officials have pushed hard for the polls, which had been due by Oct. 1, as a key step toward repairing Iraq’s sectarian divisions.

The announcement followed stinging criticism by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, over the methods used to pass the law despite a Kurdish walkout to protest a secret ballot on a section dealing with the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Talabani accused lawmakers of using unconstitutional means to push the legislation through “against the will of the second-largest parliamentary bloc,” warning it could jeopardize national unity and provoke sectarian tensions.

The Kurds hold 58 seats in the 275-member parliament and traditionally ally themselves with majority Shiites.

Iraqi laws must be ratified by the presidential council. But Talabani and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, rejected the election plan while Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was abroad, deputy parliamentary speaker Khalid al-Attiyah told The Associated Press.

Talabani said in his earlier statement that he could not approve a law that was passed by only 127 members of the 275-strong parliament. The body had claimed it had a quorum and the measure was approved by a majority of the 140 lawmakers present.

The president also reprimanded lawmakers for using the secret ballot instead of “dealing with the disputed issue on the basis of consensus or agreements.”

“The president is looking for a responsible stance by the political movements and the presidency of the parliamentary blocs, to correct that flaw,” Talabani said.

It was the latest setback for efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to overcome criticism that it has failed to take advantage of security gains to make political progress.

The State Department acknowledged the debate over the law was “quite contentious.”

“Iraqis are facing a number of challenges in their country. This is clearly one of them, but it is also a sign of democracy at work,” State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said. “We urge all parties to remain engaged and to work together and to find a path forward that will allow for provincial election in 2008.”

Iraq’s electoral commission has said the provincial balloting already needs to be delayed until Dec. 22 because it was too late to make the necessary preparations.

Before the council’s decision was announced, an official in the commission said “the date will be changed to sometime in 2009” if the law was rejected. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Al-Attiyah, a Shiite, and other critics also have predicted the rejection would make a vote unlikely before next year.

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