Iraq VP holds out hope for election law compromise

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2009 2:34 PM

Iraq's vice president said Thursday he remains open to talks to break an impasse on holding parliamentary elections scheduled for next month but stands by his demand that minority Sunnis have a greater voice in the voting.

A long delay of the elections could complicate withdrawal timetables for the U.S. military, which is keeping the bulk of its combat troops in place because of a possible rise in violence surrounding the voting.

That concern was reinforced by a series of insurgent attacks Thursday against civilians and security forces despite a dramatic decline in violence since 2007, when sectarian violence brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Chances appeared to be dimming for Iraq to hold the elections as scheduled on Jan. 16.

The main obstacle is Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's recent veto of the election law, which has blocked the process. He said the law does not treat votes by Iraqis living abroad as equal to those within the country. The United Nations estimates 2.5 million Iraqis _ most of them Sunnis like al-Hashemi _ live outside the country.

An emergency parliament session was called for Saturday to debate some of the complaints raised by al-Hashemi, said Faisal Abdullah, a parliament spokesman.

For Sunnis, the issue of political clout is extremely important. Their once-privileged status was lost with the fall of Saddam Hussein and they fear being increasingly sidelined by the majority Shiites who took control of the government and security forces.

Some officials, including a U.N. envoy, have proposed moving the voting to the end of February or March. Al-Hashemi said he was ready for more dialogue, but insisted he will not lift his veto unless his demands are met.

"I did not veto the law for the sake of a veto; I had my legitimate justifications," he told a news conference.

After al-Hashemi's veto, lawmakers redrafted the law, stripping parliamentary seats from some Sunni provinces and giving them to northern Kurdish provinces. The vice president wants those seats restored. He must issue a second veto by Sunday or the amended law will automatically be approved.

Al-Hashemi said there is still time to reach a compromise and that he is studying proposals by U.N. monitors for moving forward. But he vowed not to lift his veto until the law's "shortcomings" are addressed.

Details of the U.N. proposals have not been made public. But Sandra Mitchell, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq's electoral commission, suggested to parliament Speaker Ayad al-Sammaraie on Wednesday the election could be moved to March, according to the speaker's Web site.

President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of all combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 troops in advisory roles. Under an Iraqi-U.S. security agreement, those remaining troops would leave by the end of 2011.

A long delay in the voting also could force military commanders to juggle both election security and the pullout

The U.S. pullout remains on track, though certain parts of the withdrawal could be rearranged to accommodate the delay and still meet the president's deadline, said Army Maj. Gen. John J.D. Johnson, a deputy commander in Iraq.

"We've got a lot of flexibility," he said.

On Thursday in northern Iraq, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt near goldsmith shops in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, killing the chief of riot police, three of his bodyguards and a shop owner, said police and hospital officials.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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Associated Press Writer Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.