BAGHDAD — One of Iraq's vice presidents vetoed the country's new election law Wednesday, throwing into fresh doubt the feasibility of holding crucial national balloting in January and possibly disrupting the withdrawal next year of U.S. troops.
Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, carried out his threat to veto the law because, he said, it does not provide for enough seats to represent Iraqi refugees who fled the violence of recent years, most of them living in Syria and Jordan. A majority of the refugees are Sunni Muslims.
Iraqi law gives the nation's two vice presidents as well as its president the power to veto legislation.
Addressing a news conference held to announce his decision, Hashimi said he did not expect his veto to delay the election because parliament could fix the problem "maybe in one session."
But parliament spent months haggling over the law as it is written, and it was unclear whether legislators would quickly be able to find a compromise that would satisfy Hashimi.
In a strongly worded statement, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, condemned the veto as "a serious threat to the political process and democracy."
"It is not based on solid constitutional foundations, and it doesn't take into account the higher national interest," Maliki said.
Hashimi's veto came a day after Kurds threatened to boycott the election unless the three provinces they control are given more seats, further clouding prospects that balloting can go ahead by the end of January, as mandated by the constitution.
The election commission, charged with organizing the poll, suspended most of its preparations after the veto, commissioner Hamdia Hussaini said. "This will have a serious effect on the elections," she said.
The commission had already said it would be hard pressed to organize a poll by January because of the long delay in passing an election law, which was approved Nov. 8, more than three weeks past the deadline. The United Nations' special representative to Iraq, Ad Melkert, told the Security Council this week that it would be a "herculean task" to organize an election that met acceptable standards by January.
A delayed election also risks postponing the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, which is supposed to happen after the election and a subsequent determination by commanders that Iraq is sufficiently stable. President Obama has said he wants the combat troops out by the end of August.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Wednesday that he was not yet unduly concerned about the possibility of an election delay because there is plenty of flexibility built into the timetable. "We don't have to make any decisions until the late spring," Odierno said.
More than 60,000 troops have been withdrawn over the last 14 months, he said. The current level, 115,000, will be maintained through the election, but unnecessary equipment and gear are being sent home, he said at a news conference.
The Iraqi Constitution stipulates that elections must be held by the end of January, and failure to meet that deadline could plunge the country into a crisis. The vote was originally scheduled for Jan. 16, but the election commission had said that would be impossible. Commissioner Hussaini estimated that the latest date on which it could feasibly be held would be Jan. 21.
It will be difficult to hold the election in the last 10 days of January, Hussaini said, because of a Shiite religious holiday, when millions of pilgrims converge on the Iraqi holy city of Karbala. The roads will be clogged, and many Shiites will be away from their home constituencies and unable to vote.
According to the constitution, the election law will now be bounced back to parliament.
If an amended law is vetoed again, parliament can override the veto with a three-fifths majority vote.
The other members of Iraq's Presidency Council with veto authority are President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite.
The veto raised sectarian tensions, with lawmaker Baha Araji of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement accusing Hashimi of playing into the hands of insurgents.
"This veto serves the interests of Izzat [Ibrahim] Douri and Mohammed Yunis Ahmad," he told reporters, naming top leaders of the insurgency who are affiliated with the former Baath Party and live in Syria.
The law parliament passed allocates 5% of the 323 seats of the Council of Representatives as compensatory seats for minorities and those living overseas, giving the refugees eight seats.
Hashimi wants that figure increased to 15%, similar to the percentage they received in the last election, when far fewer Iraqis were living abroad.
The United Nations estimates that there are now 1 million to 2 million Iraqi refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.