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By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament on Monday approved an amended law needed to hold an election next year, but the new text risks being vetoed a second time -- which could delay both the vote and next year's partial U.S. troop withdrawal.
The bill now returns to the three-person presidential council where, lawmakers said, Sunni Arab Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi is likely veto it again as it still fails to address his demand to give more of a say to Iraqis living abroad.
"This has widened the problem and we are heading into a dark tunnel. This means a delay in the election by at least one month," said Alaa Maki of the Sunni Arab Accordance Front.
"This is arm-twisting. It does not resolve the issue."
Western diplomats have warned that delaying the ballot beyond January would be unconstitutional, setting a dangerous precedent should a future leader, disinclined to hand over power, seek justification to put off a scheduled election.
A substantial delay could also affect U.S. plans to end combat operations by August 31, 2010. A full U.S. withdrawal is due by the end of 2011.
Supporters of the amended election law, which was proposed by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and his Kurdish and Shi'ite partners, acknowledged it was unlikely to resolve the impasse thrown up by Hashemi's veto.
Rather, the proposal seemed destined to stoke tensions between minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites that are still smouldering 6-1/2 years after the invasion ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
"We know very well that what we voted on today will be vetoed again by his excellency," said Baha al-Araji, a Shi'ite lawmaker and head of the parliamentary legal committee.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the election date could slip and said the United States would present "a number of ideas" to help break the deadlock.
"We believe on balance there will be elections. They might slip by some period of time until this is worked out because at some point the law has to be in place for the planning to begin," she said.
"We know that there are some continuing concerns as expressed by the vice-president that have to be addressed."
The amended law includes new clauses that give Iraqis inside and outside the country equal status as voters and say the votes of refugees and exiles would be counted in their home provinces.
But it does not increase the seats allocated to minorities and refugees to 15 percent, as Hashemi had demanded.
The text also stipulates that the number of seats assigned to each province will be based on food rationing data from 2005, when the last national vote occurred, raised by 2.8 percent per year to reflect population growth.
Sunni Arab parliamentarians are alarmed at the proposal to use 2005 data because it would reduce their representation in some areas, especially the turbulent northern city of Mosul, and their clout against Shi'ites and Kurds.
Several Shi'ite and Kurdish lawmakers said their motivation for proposing the amended law was a widespread desire not to let Hashemi grandstand at their expense.
The United States has lobbied hard for the election to take place on time in January. U.S. commanders want to retain a sizeable force in Iraq until the next government is seated.
U.S. plans to beef up NATO forces in Afghanistan partially hinge on the military's ability to draw down in Iraq.
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Michael Christie: Editing by Robin Pomeroy)