BAGHDAD A preliminary agreement has been reached over Iraq's election law which the country's Sunni Arab vice president is now less likely to veto for a second time, his office said on Thursday.
The deal reached between Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, political parties, the Shi'ite-led government and electoral authorities does not mean the vote is any more likely to take place before the constitutional deadline of end-January.
But it might reduce the chances of a longer delay in holding the ballot and of a resulting political vacuum affecting U.S. plans to end combat operations in Iraq next August.
"The agreement includes finding mechanisms to ensure seats are not taken away from any provinces and that Iraqis inside and outside the country are treated equally," said Abdul Elah Kadhum, a spokesman for Hashemi's office.
"This makes us say there is hopefully no need for a second veto."
The parliamentary election comes at a crucial juncture for Iraq as it emerges from the bloodshed triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion and ahead of a full U.S. withdrawal by December 31, 2011.
Hashemi, one of three members of a presidential council with the power to veto legislation, rejected an initial electoral law that parliament had spent weeks negotiating.
He complained that the law did not give enough of a voice to Iraqis who fled abroad during the fighting. Many are Sunnis.
Rather than address Hashemi's complaint, Shi'ite and Kurdish lawmakers in parliament joined forces to approve a new law this week that took seats from Sunni areas and gave them to Kurdish provinces in what lawmakers said was a slight to Hashemi.
The move laid bare again the faultlines between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi'ites, potentially inflaming sectarian tensions just as Iraq appears to be on a path to greater security and stability.
'NO MORE DIFFICULTIES'
U.S. and U.N. officials presented proposals to Hashemi on Wednesday in which his issues with the election law could be addressed through mechanisms implemented by the electoral commission, IHEC, rather than through another change to the law.
Despite the deal, it remained unclear when Hashemi would approve the law. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi'ite, have already signed it.
"We urge Hashemi to agree to the new law and not create any more difficulties," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
According to the constitution the vote should be held before the end of January. It will be difficult to hold it in the last week of that month because of Shi'ite religious festivals.
Western diplomats say February 15 or early in March are options.
"I remain confident that there will be an election law allowing the elections to be held around 15 February," outgoing British ambassador Christopher Prentice said in a presentation at Chatham House in London on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad and Peter Millership in London; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by) Samia Nakhoul