BAGHDAD — Iraq's pivotal national elections were thrown back into turmoil and potential delay Wednesday after Vice President Tariq al Hashemi vetoed part of an election law and sent it back to parliament.
Successful national elections, which are supposed to take place in January, are a crucial milestone for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq. President Barack Obama wants to remove all American combat forces from Iraq by Aug. 31
Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim, charged that the measure doesn't provide adequate representation for millions of displaced Iraqis, most of whom are thought to be Sunnis.
A senior official from Iraq's independent elections commission said it was suspending preparations for the elections, which had just gotten under way last week.
"We halted all sorts of preparations for the next elections because we don't have a date for elections and we don't have a law," said Qassim al Aboudi, the head of the commission's electoral department.
It wasn't immediately clear how quickly the latest snag in Iraqi politicians' tortuous effort to arrange the elections could be overcome. Parliament members are scheduled to meet Thursday to debate the changes Hashemi has demanded.
"Our hope, obviously, is it will not delay the timing of the elections," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Odierno said he had until about May 1 to decide whether to ask Obama to alter the Aug. 31 timeline. All U.S. forces are due to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Odierno said there were now 115,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a slight reduction from recent levels.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who's a Shiite Muslim, issued a statement saying the veto poses "a serious threat to the political process and democracy ... and didn't put into consideration the higher national interest."
Hashemi's action underscored how sectarian politics still predominates in Iraq, despite a buildup of American troops beginning in 2007 aimed at improving security and providing a climate for political reconciliation.
Ten days ago, Obama praised Iraq's parliament for passing the elections law, after nearly a dozen delays. To do so, lawmakers papered over a dispute about voting in the divided Kirkuk region and other areas that are contested by Arabs and ethnic Kurds.
On Tuesday, however, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani threatened a Kurdish boycott of the polls, charging that Kurdish regions were under-represented in government figures for ration cards, which serve to identify voters.
Preparations for the elections are already behind schedule, and a further delay could complicate logistics, tarnish the elections' legitimacy and, in the worst-case scenario, throw Iraq into a constitutional crisis.
"The veto is unconstitutional and illegal," said Baha al Araji, the head of parliament's legal committee. Hashemi, "with good intentions, might have served the enemies of Iraq."
Araji said the legal committee would present its report to the parliament Thursday and then lawmakers either would accept the amendments that Hashemi proposed or reject them without discussion.
Hashemi is one of the Presidency Council's three members, each of whom has veto power over legislation.
At a news conference Wednesday, he emphasized that his objections were over only a single article of the legislation, not the law itself. He said the amendment he sought could be finished "in one day."
Parliament voted Nov. 8 to set aside 5 percent of seats for Iraqis displaced outside the country. Hashemi, saying there'd been an increase in displaced people, called for that figure to be raised to 15 percent.
Parliament Deputy Speaker Khalid al Attia, noting that lawmakers already had voted on the question, said: "We hold his excellency the Vice President Mr. Tariq al Hashemi fully responsible if the general parliamentary elections were postponed."
Philip Frayne, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said, "Were disappointed about developments today regarding the elections law. It's our hope that quick action will be taken so a solution will be found, so the elections can go forward in January."
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
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