- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

BAGHDAD | A senior election official said Tuesday that Iraq must delay a national vote scheduled for January because of a political dispute, and the vice president who triggered the crisis indicated he would veto a key election law for a second time.

The prospect of delayed balloting in Iraq and a growing sense among Sunni Arabs that they are being shunted to the political margins have soured hopes for genuine reconciliation in a country torn by war. The acrimony and suspicion centers on Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions, sharpened by past bloodshed.

At one protest Tuesday, Sunni Arabs who believe the Shi’ite majority and Kurds are conspiring against them threatened to skip the vote, recalling a boycott in early 2005 at the height of the Sunni-led insurgency. Many Sunnis, however, have since joined politics and would be reluctant to risk losing a role in shaping Iraq’s future.

Iraq’s constitution says the balloting must be done in January, and a delay will deepen uncertainty in a nation struggling to recover from years of war.

“It is impossible to hold the elections in January from the legal and logistical point of view,” said Qassim al-Aboudi, a top official on the Independent High Electoral Commission. “We are going to wait for the result of the dispute before setting another date.”

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, had vetoed the law because he wanted more seats for Iraqis abroad, most of whom are Sunnis who fled sectarian bloodshed after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s parliament amended the law Monday with the backing of Shi’ite and Kurdish legislators, but lawmakers from the Sunni Arab minority skipped the vote, saying the Kurds stood to gain seats at their expense.

Mr. al-Hashimi’s office said the vice president will veto the revised law. Mr. al-Hashemi and the two other members of the presidential council have 10 days to use their individual veto power.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said that the election guidelines met the aspirations of all Iraqis, “regardless of their religion, sect or ethnicity,” and he appealed to Mr. al-Hashimi to accept the amended law.

Parliament can override a second veto with a three-fifths majority of all 275 lawmakers. Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds make up about 80 percent of the country’s population and have enough lawmakers in the legislature to override the veto and adopt the law.

The deal making that led to the amended law largely addressed complaints about the electoral system from the powerful Kurdish bloc, guaranteeing their support for the law. Lawmakers changed the basis for distributing seats, most likely giving more seats to the Kurds. The number of seats in parliament will be expanded to about 320 to reflect population growth.

The United States has tied the pace of withdrawal of combat troops to the January election date, though the U.S. military says that schedule is on track for now.

Under a deal with Iraq, all U.S. forces must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. “It is very important for Iraq’s future that these elections take place soon,” U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said, noting that the amended law reflected efforts to meet the concerns of the vice president.

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