Iraq parliament struggles over elusive vote deal
* Parliament session delayed until Sunday
* Lawmakers remain far from agreement
By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament suspended efforts on Saturday to reach a deal on a law which is crucial for an election to take place in January and could affect the U.S. military' s plans for a partial withdrawal next year.
Political parties would continue negotiations on Sunday, officials said, after Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed the law and sent it back to parliament to demand greater representation for Iraqis who fled abroad, most of them Sunnis.
Parliament must now either address Hashemi's complaints and amend the law, which may invite other interest groups to demand other changes, or send it back to him unchanged only for him to possibly veto it again.
The law was approved on Nov. 8 only after weeks of wrangling over how to hold the vote in the disputed city of Kirkuk.
"The session has been suspended until tomorrow to give more time for heads of parliamentary blocs and the legal committee to meet to find a solution," Baha al-Araji, a Shi'ite lawmaker and head of parliamentary legal committee, told Reuters. The failure of Iraqi legislators to reach agreement cast further doubt on the likelihood that the parliamentary election would be held on time, potentially threatening the U.S. military's plans to end combat operations in August.
Constitutionally, the election must be held before the end of January and a law must be in place 60 days before voting day, seen as a a milestone as Iraq emerges from years of bloodshed triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The final week of January is unpalatable, in particular to Iraq's Shi'ite majority, because it coincides with major Muslim religious festivals. So the clock is ticking.
Any material delay in the election could affect U.S. military plans to end combat operations 16 months ahead of a full pullout by Dec. 31, 2011.
The U.S. military wants to retain a robust presence in Iraq until a new government is seated and the security situation is clear. Plans to beef up U.S. forces in Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban partly hinge on the pullout from Iraq.
"Until now there are no signs that any agreement is reachable," said Abbas Bayati, a lawmaker of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite alliance.
"We are afraid that if we accept the veto of the vice president, the door will be open to more objections from other parties and this door will never be shut," he said.
Topping the list of other parties with concerns are Kurdish lawmakers, who have indicated they will want more seats for the three provinces in their semi-autonomous northern enclave if Hashemi gets his way on greater representation for exiles.
"It's not right to solve one problem and leave other problems unsolved," said Fouad Masoum, head of the Kurdish parliamentary bloc. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)