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Iraq VP Threatens To Veto Vote Law Over Refugees

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (file photo during press conference in Amman, Jordan)
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president has threatened to veto a new election law unless seats in parliament are allocated to Iraqi refugees, casting fresh uncertainty over the January election.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi told parliament the law had to be altered to give a voice to Iraqis abroad. Many of them are members of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Muslim community who fled after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 unleashed a sectarian war.

"Unfortunately this law did not give fair treatment to the large numbers of Iraqi refugees outside Iraq, who were forced to leave their country for reasons beyond their control," Hashemi said in a letter to parliament, adding that he would use his veto power unless the changes were incorporated.

The vice president's veto threat raised doubts about whether Iraq would be able to hold a general election in January.

The electoral authorities need time to prepare for the ballot, expected to take place between January 18-23. The vote is viewed as a major milestone as Iraq emerges from 6 1/2 years of bloodshed and stands on its own feet while U.S. forces withdraw.

The election date had 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 a week ago following pressure from United Nations and U.S. officials. Any delay to the election could affect U.S. plans to end combat operations on Aug. 31, 2010, ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011.

The electoral law allocates five percent of the 323 seats in the next parliament to minorities, such as Christians, and internally displaced Iraqis living away from their homes.

But it does not give any representation to the as many as two million Iraqi refugees it is estimated are living abroad.

Hashemi, one of Shi'ite Muslim-run Iraq's two vice presidents and a member of a presidential council that has a veto power over legislation, said the electoral law should be changed to include refugees.

The percentage of seats allocated for the displaced, minorities and refugees should be raised to 15 percent, he said.

"This law is sick and tomorrow it will be returned to the hands of its creators [parliament], either to give it the necessary treatment or subject it to surgery," Hashemi said, refusing to approve the law in its current state.