BAGHDAD - President Jalal Talabani said yesterday that he would veto a law governing provincial elections scheduled for this year, making it all but certain that the balloting will be delayed until 2009.
The announcement was a setback for both the Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which hailed a preliminary election law passed earlier this year as evidence of political progress. The ongoing disagreements over the polling have instead highlighted the sectarian fissures that still divide the country.
Talabani, a Kurd, said the law passed by Parliament Tuesday was unconstitutional and had been approved by only 127 of the body's 275 members, after the Kurdish delegation walked out in protest. For a bill to become law, it must be approved by the three-member presidency council, which Talabani heads.
"The presidency council will never pass this law," Talabani said in a statement issued by his office, which said that recent actions surrounding the legislation have "made enormous damage to the national unity."
The dispute over the law centered on the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that Kurdish leaders believe should come under the authority of their semiautonomous regional government. Most of the Iraqi political parties had already agreed that elections to govern Kirkuk would be delayed indefinitely; the clash was over how the city should be governed in the interim.
The legislation approved by Parliament would divide control of the provincial council between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens; currently the Kurds control the balance of power on the council and as well as the governorship. The law also called for Kirkuk to be controlled by troops from central and southern Iraq, rather than the Kurdish forces that now patrol the city. When the speaker of Parliament called for a secret ballot to vote on those parts of the legislation, the Kurds walked out of the session.
"It was a big surprise," said Sami al-Askary, a Shi'ite lawmaker close to Maliki who was traveling with the prime minister in Germany yesterday. "The defeat was due to mismanagement by the speaker and his deputies, and then the sudden sharp rejection by the Kurds."
Faraj al-Haidari, the chairman of Iraq's independent election commission, said that if a law were passed by July 31, around when Parliament is expected to adjourn until September for its summer recess, then balloting could take place by late December. If not, elections would be postponed until next year.