BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi government leaders on Wednesday rejected a law that required nationwide elections by the fall, dealing a serious blow to a measure that the U.S. considers a key benchmark of political reconciliation in Iraq.
Parliament passed the legislation two weeks ago. The veto by Iraq’s presidency council was an unexpected setback. Lawmakers will now have to reconsider the measure, which they only agreed to as part of a three-law package reached after weeks of political wrangling so divisive that some called for the dissolution of parliament. The other two laws – the 2008 budget and an amnesty that could apply to thousands of detainees in Iraqi prisons – were approved by the presidency council.
“This is a huge disappointment,” said the Shiite deputy speaker of parliament, Khalid al-Attiyah, through an aide. “The political blocs all agreed on this law before. Now we will have to try to start all the deals and agreements from the beginning.”
The legislation was vetoed because of the opposition of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite vice president who sits on the three-member presidency council, which must approve all laws unanimously, according to his aides and other lawmakers. Abdul-Mahdi’s aides said he believed the law was unconstitutional and would put too much control in the hands of the central government instead of the provinces.
The passage of the law, which delineated the scope of provincial powers, was considered a crucial step not just because it fleshed out the constitution’s definition of Iraq as a federal state, but because it would have required provincial elections to be held by Oct. 1. The last nationwide elections took place in 2005.
The presidency council – whose other two members are President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and the country’s second vice president, Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni – remains firmly committed to holding the elections by Oct. 1, according to Naseer Ani, the chairman of the panel. Aides to Abdul-Mahdi said he expects the planning for the elections to go on even as parliament debates the bill.
But Western diplomats said they worry that most of the political parties have no incentive to make sure the elections are held, since many of them are likely to lose out to newly formed parties or those that boycotted the elections in 2005.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, for example, now controls much of the local government in southern Iraq, but if elections were held it might lose many of those positions to the movement of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which did not take part in the last provincial contests. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the powerful Sunni bloc led by al-Hashemi, might lose power to new Sunni politicians affiliated with the Awakening movement that began in western Anbar province.
“Everyone says that they are all for provincial elections, but there is a lot of foot-dragging going on here,” said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to damage his relationships with his Iraqi counterparts. “I think a lot of these politicians would be happy if elections never took place.”
Abdul-Mahdi was most concerned about two provisions in the law, his aides said. One would have allowed the national parliament to remove provincial governors in certain circumstances; the other would have given parliament control over aspects of the budgets for individual provinces.