Iraq's prime minister on Thursday vowed there will be no delay in the withdrawal of U.S. troops despite an Iraqi political dispute that is expected to force a January vote to be postponed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, however, Nouri al-Maliki warned that the dispute threatens national security and he harshly criticized Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab vice president who vetoed a key election law.
"The use of the veto by Mr. al-Hashemi, and persisting with it, will put the country, in terms of security, the economy and the constitution, at grave risk," said al-Maliki, a Shiite.
The United States has factored Iraq's election plan into the pace of its troop withdrawal, including the end of the military's combat mission by the end of August. Still, the U.S. military has said the schedule is on track for now, and al-Maliki said the 2011 date for a full pullout was "sacred and final."
"Linking the withdrawal process with the elections is meaningless," al-Maliki said. "I think the withdrawal schedule of U.S. forces will continue as it is now and the American presence in Iraq will finish by the end of 2011 in accordance with the timetable."
Most American forces have already deployed to outlying bases from urban areas, letting Iraqi authorities preside over vastly improved security after years of sectarian warfare and insurgent attacks. But militants remain active, and the prime minister cautioned that the election deadlock could heighten tensions.
Al-Hashemi vetoed the election law because he wanted more seats for Iraqis abroad, most of whom are members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. Al-Maliki's government is dominated by the majority Shiites, who rose to prominence after enduring years of oppression under Saddam Hussein.
The veto backfired because Shiite and Kurdish legislators corralled enough votes to amend the law in a way that met a demand for more parliamentary seats from the powerful Kurdish bloc, which runs three northern provinces with so much independence that they have their own flag, parliament and security forces.
Furious Sunni Arab lawmakers said the change cost them seats, and some accused al-Hashemi of gambling away their influence. The maneuvering in the 275-seat legislature, conducted almost entirely along sectarian lines, showed how old grievances, fueled by past bloodshed, haunt Iraq's path toward stability and democracy.
The three-member presidential council is divided among Iraq's three main factions as a power-sharing mechanism, and the Kurd and the Shiite on the panel have approved the amended law.
But al-Hashemi can veto it again, opening the way for parliament to try to override the veto amid recrimination and anxiety over when the election might be held. The vice president's office said Thursday that he agreed with some parts of the amended law, suggesting a compromise was being attempted.
"I think that the issue has reached its peak, and I don't think that it is in the interests of anybody that Mr. Tariq al-Hashemi continues to veto. He will inevitably back down," said al-Maliki, whose tense relationship with the vice president has a long history.
The prime minister spoke in his office, a former guest house that was used by Uday, a son of Saddam known for cruelty. The building, adjacent to lawns, palm trees and ponds with ducks, sits in a tranquil part of the heavily protected Green Zone that also houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraq's parliament.
Al-Maliki, a dissident in exile during Saddam's 23-year dictatorship, has sought to cast himself as a secular nationalist eager to shake Iraq free of its sectarian rifts. He is likely to win the largest number of seats in the 2010 elections, but he has been unable to draw significant Sunni Arab groups into his alliance.
A quota system that distributes government posts along sectarian lines may have been essential in past years, but it is not needed now, al-Maliki said. "We have adopted many measures, but I wouldn't claim that they have succeeded in ending this phenomenon" of sectarian division, he said.
Similarly, the violence in Iraq has yet to run its course. On Thursday, police and health officials said four people died and at least 32 others were wounded in two separate bombings south of Baghdad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In Sadiyah, north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed a member of the Kurdish security forces and injured a civilian, said Amir Rifaat, a member of the security committee of the Diyala provincial council.
Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin and Muhieddin Rashad contributed to this report.