Iraq’s general election planned for January, only the second since the fall of Saddam Hussein, has been thrown into jeopardy after Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed the polling law.

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“On November 15, I sent a letter to parliament asking for the law to be amended. Parliament said I could veto the contested first article (of the law), which is what I have done today,” Hashemi said.

Parliament must now reopen debate on the proposed law, leading to a likely delay of the mid-January polling date.

The election is viewed as crucial to consolidating Iraq’s fledgling democracy ahead of a withdrawal of US combat troops by August and a complete pullout by the end of 2011.

The war-torn country’s presidential council, composed of President Jalal Talabani and two vice presidents, has demanded a greater say in the election for minorities and nationals living abroad.

“The modification aims to make the representation of Iraqis abroad fairer,” said Hashemi. “It’s not only a matter of those displaced to neighbouring countries but of all Iraqis of all confessions and religions who live abroad.”

The vice president, a Sunni whose community was dominant before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam, leading to a takeover by Iraq’s majority Shiites, put their number at around four million.

MPs had finally passed the electoral law for the contest earlier this month after several weeks of wrangling.

But Talabani said that he wants parliament to revise the law so that the number of seats set aside for minorities, including Christians, and Iraqi expatriates is tripled, from five to 15 percent.

The polling date would have to be postponed if debate is reopened on the law, an Iraqi electoral commission official, Hamdiya al-Husseini, explained to AFP earlier this week.

Under the constitution, any member of the presidential council can veto a proposed law a maximum of two times before the bill is returned to parliament for approval by a vote of at least 60 percent of MPs.

“If the law is modified, that would affect the date of the election and the work of the commission,” which has proposed January 18 for the ballot, the commission’s Husseini said.

The terms of the electoral law guarantee eight seats for Iraq’s minorities and eight so-called compensatory seats, which are allocated between citizens living abroad and smaller parties seeking national representation.

The current five percent of seats allocated is a reduction on the 15 percent under the law that governed Iraq’s December 2005 general election, the first to take place after the invasion.

A Hashemi adviser has said the tripling of seats — from 16 to 48 — was necessary to promote national reconciliation.

“We have to give real representation to the Iraqis who fled abroad because most of those people were Sunni, or close to the old regime” of Saddam, said Saifaldin Abdul Rahman.

The issue is also important to President Talabani, a Kurd, as many of Iraq’s minority citizens fled to the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq during the rule of Saddam, who was executed in December 2006.

Talabani made the request to parliament after receiving a letter from Kurdish MPs asking him not to approve the electoral law.

“We sent a letter to Mr Talabani to ask him not to ratify the law because the percentage of seats is not what it should be,” said Kamal Kirkuki, president of the Kurdish parliament.

With an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis living abroad, the Sunnis are counting on the exiles’ participation to boost their showing.

The Kurds, meanwhile, are counting on increasing their influence in parliament through the large number of religious and ethnic minorities living in their region in northern Iraq.