A top Iraqi official warned Friday "it is too early" to claim a breakthrough in a political crisis over the fragile democracy's election law, all but assuring that a national vote will be pushed past its deadline.
The Obama administration was banking on the elections to be held by the end of January, as required under the nation's constitution, to begin the withdrawal of about 115,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq.
But political battles in Baghdad _ mostly over power-sharing in Parliament _ so far have stymied the upcoming vote. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has said the delay is threatening national security, but predicted all American forces would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 as scheduled.
On Friday, a Sunni Arab vice president who vetoed an attempt to overhaul Iraq's election law voiced optimism over ongoing negotiations. But Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi made clear that the political wrangling was not yet over, playing down what he described as "talk about the existence of a preliminary agreement."
"It is too early to talk about approving the law," said a statement released by al-Hashemi's office. "Some consider the legal battle as over, but we are still in the middle of the road."
In the statement, al-Hashemi sought to assure provincial officials that they will not lose seats in Parliament as a result of his Nov. 18 veto that sought to give more power to Iraqis living abroad _ most of whom are members of Iraq's Sunni minority.
Shiite and Kurdish legislators amended the law, but Sunni Arab legislators said they ultimately would lose even more seats with the change. Al-Hashemi can veto again, but his office said he is waiting for Iraq's election panel to announce details on seat distribution.
Al-Hashemi "will keep protecting the rights of the provinces and their seats quota as guaranteed by the constitution as before," the statement said.
The maneuvering in the 275-seat legislature, conducted almost entirely along sectarian lines, highlights old grievances, fueled by past bloodshed, that continue to haunt Iraq's efforts toward stability and democracy.
Friday's statement followed comments by al-Maliki, who a day earlier said in an Associated Press interview that al-Hashemi "will inevitably back down."
"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," the prime minister told The AP.
Al-Hashemi wasted little time firing back, referring to "desperate calls by some groups aiming at casting doubts on the efforts being exerted by the vice president."
"Al-Hashemi will continue his efforts in order to achieve justice," the statement concluded. "As for the defeated that have no courage, they should keep silent, leave this task to the others."
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.