BAGHDAD - Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president vetoed an election law on Wednesday over the number of seats for refugees, prompting poll workers to halt preparations and casting fresh doubt on whether the vote can take place in January.
Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said his veto of one article of the law was unlikely to delay the poll.
But his actions were likely to open the door to a fresh round of political debate over the legislation that only won parliamentary approval after protracted wrangling.
Any material delay to the ballot, planned for between January 18-23, could affect U.S. plans to end combat operations next August, ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011.
I did not veto the whole law. I have vetoed the first article of the law and I think parliament will understand my stance, Hashemi told a news conference. My suggested amendment is to give justice to all Iraqis living abroad, not just Iraqis displaced in neighbouring countries.
Many Iraqis abroad are, like Hashemi, members of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Muslim community. Many of them fled when the country descended into sectarian warfare after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, propelling Iraq's Shi'ite majority to political dominance.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, rebuked Hashemi and said his move was a serious threat to the democracy and political process in Iraq. He urged the election commission to continue poll preparations.
Iraq's electoral commission, which had already complained it has little time to prepare for the elections, said however that it had suspended its work.
Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and part of a presidential council that has veto power over legislation, said he had sent the law back to parliament after objecting to the first article because it did not give a voice to Iraqis abroad.
The electoral law allocates five percent of the 323 seats in the next parliament to minorities, such as Christians, and to Iraqis displaced from their homes.
But it does not spell out how the two million Iraqi refugees estimated to be living abroad will be represented.
'A DARK TUNNEL'
Hashemi wants 15 percent of parliamentary seats for minorities and Iraqis displaced internally and abroad.
He said the issue could be resolved in a single session of parliament and that electoral authorities should continue preparing without any expectation of a delay in the poll date.
But other politicians, wary of parliamentary squabbling over the issue, were sceptical.
The election law veto threatens the whole political process and the presidency council's responsibility is to safeguard the constitution -- not to push the country into a dark tunnel, Haidar al-Ibadi, an influential lawmaker from Maliki's Dawa party, told state television.
The election date had already been in question for weeks because of a dispute pitting ethnic Kurds against Arabs and Turkmen on how to conduct the vote in the northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim as their ancestral home.
The differences were ironed out 10 days ago following pressure from the United Nations and U.S. officials. The vote is viewed as a major milestone as Iraq emerges from 6-1/2 years of bloodshed and stands on its own feet while U.S. forces withdraw.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Michael Christie and Jon Hemming)