BAGHDAD — A group of leading political parties Friday called for a six-month delay of Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary election, expressing concern that widening violence would make voting impossible in large swaths of the country.
The 17-member group includes Iraq's two main Kurdish parties, which are key U.S. allies. Speculation about the feasibility of a January election has swirled for months, and increased last week when dozens of mainly Sunni Muslim parties endorsed a boycott of the vote. The boycott plan prompted fears that any new parliament would lack credibility.
Friday's request is expected to put more pressure on interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his U.S. backers to reconsider their refusal to postpone the vote.
In Texas, President Bush indicated Thursday that the United States would not support efforts to postpone the election beyond Jan. 30.
"The Iraq election commission has scheduled elections in January, and I would hope they would go forward in January," the president told reporters during a public appearance near his ranch outside Crawford, where his family is spending the Thanksgiving holiday.
The debate over whether to delay the election could further divide Iraqis along religious fault lines, and even ignite sectarian tension.
Iraq's Shiite majority, oppressed by Saddam Hussein's regime and marginalized for much of this century, has been eager to seize significant power in the vote -- in which Iraqis will select representatives who will draft a new constitution and pick a president. Shiite religious parties have resisted attempts to push back the election, a position in which they find themselves increasingly isolated.
The powerful Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has pushed for a speedy election and launched a grass-roots get-out-the-vote campaign. His endorsement would be crucial to any delay.
After their Friday conference, the 17 party representatives released a statement declaring that a delay was necessary pending "changes in the security situation and the completion of necessary organizational, administrative and technical preparations."
The meeting was held at the Baghdad home of Adnan Pachachi, an influential politician and the head of the Independent Democratic Movement, a Sunni party.
Organizers say they hope to build domestic and international consensus for a postponement.
"Now we must talk to the United Nations, the electoral commission and the government," said Saad Abdel Razzaq, a spokesman for the Independent Democratic Movement.
Abdel Razzaq cited security concerns and a desire to bring boycotters into the process as the main reasons for requesting a delay.
"We want to take time to have a dialogue and convince them to join the process," he said.
Allawi has repeatedly vowed to proceed with the election. On Wednesday, the prime minister declared the vote to be "on course."
On Friday, there was confusion as to whether Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party had endorsed the request. An INA representative attended the meeting, and the party's name was listed among the 17 signatories.
But Hani Idrees, a member of the INA's political bureau, said the party's representative had not signed the communique seeking the postponement.
The INA continues to support the idea of January elections, Idrees said, but would be willing to support a delay if "there was a wide consensus among all parties involved."
Abdel Razzaq, however, insisted that the INA had "signed and agreed" with the delay request.
Even without the INA's assent, Friday's announcement was a major boost for advocates of a delay.
Friday's list of signatories is diverse, including Kurdish and Sunni parties, Christians, socialists, a tribal group and a women's group.
A similar group of parties gathered last week for a conference in the northern city of Dukkan that lasted several days. After that meeting, only the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni religious party, openly endorsed a delay. Kurdish parties were noncommittal, several Shiite parties openly opposed the idea, and the final conference statement asked only that the issue be seriously examined.
An elections expert with experience in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the endorsement by the two U.S. allies, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, represented a crucial shift.
"The Kurds were weakly aligned with the Shiites toward elections on time. Now they're weakly aligned with the Sunnis toward a delay," the expert said. "There's a fight brewing and it looks like the Kurds just switched sides.... This could get messy."
The two top Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, didn't participate in Friday's meeting. Nor did the Iraqi National Congress, whose leader is former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who has sought to reinvent himself as a Shiite populist after falling out with Washington.