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U.S. Says Iraq Poll Could Slip Amid Dispute Over Election Law

  • Charles Recknagel

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi is likely to veto the bill again.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi is likely to veto the bill again.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that Iraq's national elections, set for January, "might slip" to a later date.

Speaking in Washington on November 23, she said the ongoing dispute in Baghdad over the election law could leave election planners with too little time to prepare for the poll by the end of January.

Washington has expressed hope that the national elections will provide a major boost for Baghdad in the fight against insurgents. The vote is intended to clear the way for a newly mandated Iraqi government to increasingly take over the fight from U.S. troops. That would clear the way for the U.S. administration's planned withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010.

Clinton said that "we believe on the balance that there will be elections, but they might slip by some period of time" until the dispute is worked out. She said that is because "the law has to be in place for the planning to begin."

Clinton did not speculate on the time period for any slippage, but some officials in Baghdad have speculated the poll may have to be postponed until February if the dispute over the election law is not quickly resolved.

Faraj al-Haidari, chief of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said on November 23 that "I think it is very difficult the hold the elections in January. Most probably, it might be moved to February."

Under the Iraqi Constitution, the national elections have to be held before the end of January.

But it remains to be seen whether an exception could be made for a brief delay without requiring the amendment to the constitution. Changing the constitution would likely be at least as difficult and lengthy a process as the politically charged debate over the election law has been.

Sectarian Splits

The continued disagreements over the election law pit Iraq's Sunni vice president and his power of veto against a parliament dominated by the Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi vetoed the first election law passed earlier this month, saying it did not provide representation for Iraqis living outside the country.

Iraq's ethno-sectarian divisions (click to enlarge)
There are an estimated 2 million Iraqis living outside Iraq, primarily in Jordan and Syria. Most of them are from the once-dominant Sunni minority.

However, despite Hashimi's veto, parliament on November 23 passed a new version of the law that largely ignored his recommendations for change.

The parliament refused his proposal to set aside special seats in the new legislature to represent Iraqis abroad and, instead, said the votes of refugees and exiles would be counted in their home provinces.

The parliament also took another step almost certain to make Hashimi now use his veto power for a second time.

In response to Kurdish demands, the parliament agreed to base the distribution of seats in the new legislature upon the population of the provinces as calculated from 2005 Trade Ministry statistics plus 2.8 percent annual population growth.

Sunnis charge that the use of this baseline -- rather than current 2009 Trade Ministry figures -- gives too many seats to the three semiautonomous Kurdish-controlled provinces of Iraq.

They also say it provides too few seats for strongly Sunni-populated provinces in the north, such as Mosul and Salah Al-Din.

Deadlock

The redistribution of seats comes as part of the parliament's planned increase of the total number of its seats from 275 to about 320. The increase is meant to accommodate for national population growth in the absence of any recent census.

The depth of Sunni anger over the parliament's latest version of the election law was reflected by dozens of Sunni representatives boycotting the deal-making process on November 23.

Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Accordance Front, said that "what has happened today represents a setback to the policy of political accord that the parliament has adopted."

Another Sunni legislator, Usama al-Nujayfi of the Iraqi List, told reporters, "We will seek to veto this law again because it is harmful to the future of Iraq and contradicts the constitution."

Vice President Hashimi has not yet said specifically that he will veto the new election law. But he has strongly hinted he finds the new version as unacceptable as the first.

He said on November 23 that the latest draft "was very dangerous and has negative consequences for the entire political process."

Down To The Wire

Hashimi can now veto it a second and final time as the law moves to Iraq's three-member Presidential Council for approval. The council is composed of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice Presidents Hashimi and Adil Abd al-Mahdi, a Shi'a.

Only one of the three needs to veto the bill for it to be sent back to parliament.

A second, and final, veto would set up a showdown that could only be resolved in one of two ways.

One would be yet another lengthy attempt by parliament to amend the election law and win the Presidential Council's consent.

The other would be for the parliament to try to use its constitutional power to override the veto with a three-fifths majority.

The tough line the parliament has taken so far suggests that the Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs in the parliament feel confident they have the required three-fifths' majority.
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