World News

Iraq eyes Feb 27 poll date after impasse resolved

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq is likely to select Feb. 27 as the date for next year’s general election after lawmakers overcame fierce disagreements over the distribution of seats, officials in the presidency council said on Monday.

A late February election, although after the constitutional deadline for the ballot to be held, should not interfere with the U.S. military’s plans to wrap up combat operations in Iraq next August ahead of a full withdrawal by 2012.

Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, whose veto of a law needed for the election to take place had thrown vote preparations into disarray, indicated to his colleagues on the three-person council that the Feb. 27 date suited him, a spokesman said.

Hashemi blocked the original election law because he said it did not give sufficient representation to Iraqis who fled overseas when their country exploded into bloodshed. Many of them are Sunnis.

But Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, has now told President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mehdi to issue a decree setting the election date, spokesman Ali al-Mashhadani said.

Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, was due to address the nation at 5:30 p.m. (1430 GMT).

An official in Abdul-Mehdi’s office said the vice president, a Shi’ite, had also agreed to the Feb. 27 date.

The parliamentary election comes at a critical juncture for Iraq as it emerges from years of sectarian slaughter triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion and prepares to stand on its own feet as U.S. troops pull out.

The debate in parliament over the law exposed how raw religious, sectarian and ethnic tensions remain in Iraq despite a sharp fall in overall violence in the past 18 months.

After Hashemi’s veto, lawmakers from the majority Shi’ite and minority Kurd communities joined forces to pass an amended election law that reduced the number of seats in Sunni areas, such as the volatile northern province of Nineveh.

As a result, Hashemi had been expected to veto the amended law as well.

But a last-minute deal between parliamentarians on Sunday night, 10 minutes before the expiry of a deadline for Hashemi to cast a second veto, rescued the election law and set the ballot back on track.

The agreement restored some seats to Sunni areas and also placated Kurdish complaints by giving their semi-autonomous northern provinces a handful more seats.

Editing by Michael Christie and Jon Boyle