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By Waleed Ibrahim and Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi lawmakers failed on Thursday to resolve differences over an election law, dampening hopes of holding a vote on time in January and throwing into doubt a partial U.S. troop withdrawal later next year.
Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, vetoed the election law Wednesday and sent it back to parliament, sparking fears of an election delay that could affect U.S. plans to end combat operations in Iraq in August.
Instead of addressing Hashemi's demand that the law give more seats to Iraqi refugees and minorities, lawmakers squabbled over whether the veto was legal.
They scheduled a session Saturday in which they would vote on whether to reject Hashemi's veto and send the law back for approval by the three-person presidency council without changes, said the speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarai.
Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and part of a presidential council that has veto power over legislation, had sent the law back to parliament after objecting to the first article because it did not give a voice to Iraqis abroad.
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.
Lawmakers must pass a modified law in the next few days to meet a constitutional deadline to hold the ballot in January.
"We have not had any sign of a political consensus over this issue today so we decided to go to a vote over the veto," Samarai told a news conference.
'POLITICAL CRISIS'
He said he was confident elections could be held in January as planned if parliament sorted out the matter Saturday, but analysts warn that debate on one issue in Iraq usually triggers debate on several others, bogging down the entire process.
"Any discussion on any single point of the law will now open other issues and many other political entities will present requests to change other points of the law," said analyst Hassan Salman.
The general election had been expected between January 18 and 23 and is being closely watched as a test of Iraq's ability to function independently after nearly seven years of violence and sectarian bloodshed triggered by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
U.S. officials are worried a delay in the election will scupper plans to end combat operations next August, ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011. Sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan hinges partly on the pullout from Iraq.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said no decisions to change the drawdown plan needed to be made until April or May. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told a news briefing in Washington the administration continued to assume the withdrawal would go ahead as scheduled.
"We were very heartened when the election law was passed, and we hope that the concerns that have been expressed can be resolved quickly and new legislation passed so that the election can take place within the constitutional framework, meaning before the end of January," Gates said.
Asked about the possibility the timetable might have to be delayed, Gates said, "We've seen nothing at this point that would make that necessary."
The political wrangling kicked off Thursday with the head of parliament's legal committee, Baha al-Araji, saying an Iraqi court had ruled Hashemi's veto was unconstitutional.
Samarai said the court opinion had not addressed the legality of Hashemi's veto in its ruling and that in any case, such an opinion would not be binding.
"To my knowledge, the federal court did not say the veto is not constitutional," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, an independent Sunni lawmaker, amid a flurry of meetings and news conferences in parliament. "They are trying to create a real political crisis."
But Hashemi's move, which appeared designed to raise his profile before the election, has come in for sharp criticism from other lawmakers and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, who denounced it as "a serious threat" to democracy.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and David Alexander, Writing by Deepa Babington; editing by Samia Nakhoul and Todd Eastham)

Reuters