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Iraq Sets March 7 For Poll After Political Wrangling

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq today set a long-awaited date for a general election next year, but later pushed it back by one day to March 7, amid political wrangling typical of the squabbles which have already delayed the vote.

Naseer al-Ani, President Jalal Talabani's chief of staff, told Reuters the presidency council had picked the new date late today, after an earlier date of March 6.

The date was announced a few hours after a series of car bombs ripped through Baghdad, killing 112 people and wounding 425, a brutal reminder of the threat still posed by the Sunni Islamist insurgency 6 1/2 years after the U.S. invasion.

The election date reduces risk to a U.S. plan to end combat operations in Iraq next August ahead of full withdrawal by 2012.

"The new date is March 7. We don't want to upset anyone, we want this to go smoothly," al-Ani said, without elaborating on the reason for the last-minute change.

Tareq Jawher, adviser to the parliament of Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, said Kurds had rejected the March 6 date because it coincided with the anniversary of a 1975 treaty between former dictator Saddam Hussein and Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi that Kurds say marginalized them.

March 7 comes after a constitutional deadline for the poll but is still just before Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's mandate expires, thus reducing the risk of a political vacuum that could undermine Iraq's young democracy and fuel instability.

The ballot was initially expected in mid-January, but Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, on November 18 vetoed parliament's election law. He argued it did not provide enough representation for refugees, many of whom are Sunni.

Hashemi then threatened to veto a revised law that did not address his concerns and instead allocated more seats to Kurds. Lawmakers, cajoled by U.S. and UN officials, late on December 6 agreed to a last-minute compromise on the distribution of seats, and Hashemi dropped his objections.

The political wrangling over the election law reveals how deep sectarian divides still run in Iraq.

Many Sunnis, a minority that controlled Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein, have at times struggled to accept the dominance of the country's Shi'ite majority since Hussein's overthrow.

That has fed a Sunni Islamist insurgency, believed to be behind today's attacks, which were the deadliest bombings in Iraq in more than a month.