Iraq general election in doubt as vice-president vetoes poll law


BAGHDAD – Iraq’s Sunni Arab vice-president vetoed an election law yesterday over the number of seats for refugees, prompting poll workers to halt some preparations and casting new doubt on whether the vote can take place in January.

Vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi said his veto of one article of the law was unlikely to delay the poll. But his actions could open the door to a fresh round of debate over the legislation, which won parliamentary approval only after protracted wrangling.

Any material delay to the ballot, planned for between January 18th and 23rd, could affect US plans to end combat operations next August, ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011.

The US military commander in Iraq said he did not have to decide until April or May on whether to push back the end of US combat operations in Iraq due to a potential election delay.

Mr Hashemi, casting himself as a champion of Sunni Arab rights, defended his move as giving Iraqi refugees a voice. “My suggested amendment is to give justice to all Iraqis living abroad, not just Iraqis displaced in neighbouring countries.”

Many Iraqis abroad are, like Mr Hashemi, members of Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni Muslim community. Many of them fled when the country descended into sectarian warfare after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, propelling Iraq’s Shia majority to political dominance.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, rebuked Mr Hashemi and said his move was “a serious threat to the democracy and political process” in Iraq.

One official from Iraq’s electoral commission, which had already complained of little time to prepare for the election, said it had suspended all work. Another said work related to candidate lists and distribution of some seats had been stopped, but that other work, such as the training of poll workers, continued.

“It is really hard to see how a delay of the elections can be avoided,” said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website “The fear is that multiple issues will come up for discussion once the Bill gets back to parliament. Already, some Iraqi politicians are talking about the whole process having gone back to square one.”

The electoral law allocates 5 per cent of the 323 seats in the next parliament to minorities, such as Christians, and to Iraqis displaced from their homes.

But it does not spell out how the two million Iraqi refugees estimated to be living abroad will be represented.

Mr Hashemi wants 15 per cent of parliamentary seats for minorities and Iraqis displaced internally and abroad.

The election date had already been in question for weeks because of a dispute pitting ethnic Kurds against Arabs and Turkmen on how to conduct the vote in the northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim as their ancestral home.

The differences were ironed out 10 days ago following pressure from the UN and US officials. – (Reuters)