Iraq's parliament on Monday amended the country's vetoed election law with a new version that doesn't address the concerns of the country's aggrieved Sunnis, prompting predictions of further vetoes and delayed elections.
The dispute highlights the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, which, while more secure than in past years of war, has yet to attain the political reconciliation vital to long-term stability.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, vetoed the law because he wanted more seats for Iraqis living abroad, most of whom are Sunnis. The minority, dominant under Saddam Hussein, has seen its privileged status evaporate since the ouster of the dictator and the election of a government led by the Shiite majority.
After days of intense negotiations by political blocs, lawmakers voted to change the basis of distributing seats to an earlier census, most likely giving more seats to the powerful Kurdish bloc rather than the Sunnis.
The number of seats in parliament will be expanded from 275 to around 320 under the amended law to reflect population growth.
Dozens of lawmakers walk out
The pre-vote dealmaking appeared to focus mostly on Shiite-led efforts to address complaints about the electoral system from the Kurds, prompting dozens of Sunni lawmakers to walk out.
"What has happened today represents a setback to the policy of political accordance that the parliament has adopted," said Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the Accordance Front, the biggest Sunni bloc in the parliament.
Al-Hashemi is likely to veto the amended law now that it returns to the three-member presidential council, but parliament can override a second veto with a three-fifths majority.
"We will wait for the answer from the presidential council before deciding future moves," said Faraj al-Haidari, chief of the election commission. "I think that it is very difficult to hold the elections in January. Most probably, it might be moved to February."
The amendment reshuffles the distribution of seats among Iraq's provinces, basing it on 2005 Trade Ministry statistics plus 2.8 percent annual population growth, instead of the 2009 Trade Ministry figures.
This solution would likely give Kurds more seats in the next parliament. The Kurds have threatened to boycott the elections if the three provinces they control in northern Iraq are not allocated more seats.
‘Grave constitutional violation’
The amendment also says Iraqis living abroad will have their vote counted toward their home province, rather than allocating seats for voters outside Iraq, as al-Hashemi had requested.
Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujeifi said the amendment was a "grave constitutional violation" and would transfer seats from northern provinces where Sunnis have a strong presence to semi-autonomous provinces controlled by Kurds.
"It is a way to steal seats from Mosul and Salahuddin provinces and give them to Kurdistan provinces in an illegitimate way," he said.
Fouad Massoum, a senior Kurdish lawmaker, said the amendment was fair.
The U.N. has estimated that there were around 2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring Jordan and Syria, and some 2.6 million people displaced within Iraq. The total population is at least 27 million.
The United States has linked the pace of its military drawdown to the elections, but the top U.S. commander in Iraq says the schedule is on track for now. U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq by August, and the rest of the forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.