BAGHDAD — Iraq's three-man presidency council Wednesday announced that it's vetoed legislation that U.S. officials two weeks ago hailed as significant political progress.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he hoped that Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels would last a "week or two" but "not months."
Turkish news agencies reported that as many as 77 guerrillas were killed the night before in the most violent night of the week-old incursion on Iraq's northern border. A rebel spokesman said fighters for the Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK, had killed 18 Turkish soldiers.
The rejected bill, which sets out the political structure for Iraq's provincial governments and establishes a basis for elections in October, was only the second of 18 U.S.-set political benchmarks that the war-tore nation needs to reach.
Parliament considered it in a bundle with two other bills, a general amnesty and a budget, and approved it on Feb. 12 in what was welcomed in Washington as an example of good government, compromise and progress toward national unity.
Now the question is whether parliament is willing to revise the measure.
"It was a package deal. Now that package is broken," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.
At the heart of the rejection of the provincial law is the question of whether Iraq will have strong provincial governors who answer only to their elected executive councils or if the federal prime minister will have a voice in their appointment and removal.
The presidency council vetoed the bill, challenging the role it gave both the prime minister and the governor.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said the law is needed to define the roles of Iraq's provinces and of the central government and to set ground rules for any future discussion of creating a federation of Sunni and Shiite Muslim and Kurdish regions.
"The key issue is whether the presidency council sent the law back for the right reasons and if parliament will improve the law rather than oppose further delays," he said.
A spokesman declined to say which member or members of the presidency council, which is composed of a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni, refused to sign the legislation, sending it back to parliament.
He said the Oct. 1 elections aren't compromised.
However, Hiltermann expressed doubt that the elections would take place as scheduled in October. "It's all up for grabs," he said. "Everything is set back."
Political groupings that oppose extreme government centralization, such as Sunnis, Shiite nationalists and Shiite followers of radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr, could see an uphill battle in parliament, Hiltermann said.
Hassan al Sneid, a Dawa Party member in the large Iraqi Alliance, supports the idea of a prime minister wielding control over governors. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is also a Dawa member.
"If the prime minister doesn't have the authority to depose a governor, we will have a president in each governorate," he said.
Meanwhile, fighting in northern Iraq continued Wednesday between Turkish soldiers and PKK, who have fought for years for an independent Kurdish region of Turkey.
"It's very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave. They have to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty," Gates told reporters during a visit to New Delhi, India. "I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months."
Gates is expected to meet with Turkish officials in Ankara Thursday.
(Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.)