BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A veto by Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president of a law needed for the next election to take place renews doubts that the vote can be held in January, and raises questions about the timetable for a drawdown of U.S. troops.
The parliamentary election, which will determine who runs Iraq during the looming U.S. withdrawal and who will preside over Iraq's potential metamorphosis into one of the world's top oil producers, is supposed to occur between Jan. 18-23.
Is an election in January still possible? Will President Barack Obama's troop drawdown plan remain possible?
A January election date remains possible. A main constitutional requirement is that an election law be in place 60 days before a ballot.
So the Iraqi parliament still has a few days to discuss Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi's demand that Iraqi refugees living abroad be given a clearer voice.
There is a danger, of course, that other political groups will decide to revive their misgivings about the election law once it comes back to parliament for discussions. The last dispute took weeks to resolve; this one may take just as long.
Another constitutional deadline or constraint is that the election take place by the end of January.
Anything after Jan. 24, however, becomes highly contentious because of a Muslim religious festival.
One of Iraq's main Shi'ite Muslim parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), says Jan. 24 is a "red line" it will not allow the electoral authorities to cross.
The race to prepare for the vote will be tight and the national election commission has warned it will not be able to stage as perfect a ballot as it might have hoped.
But in some ways the 2010 election, whenever it takes place, is bound to be a step-up from the last vote in 2005 -- for the first time in a national election in Iraq, voters will be able to select candidates, and not just parties.
The vote will also be the first post-invasion and post-Saddam Hussein national election held by a sovereign Iraq.
After years of warfare in which tens of thousands of people died, some Iraqis feel that just being able to bicker over an election date is a victory in itself.
The only treaty-based deadline for the U.S. military in Iraq is Dec. 31, 2011, when according to a bilateral security pact signed last year the last U.S. soldier will have to withdraw.
That date is not remotely threatened by any likely delay in next year's election.
U.S. ambassador Chris Hill conceded, however, that a delay in the election could affect U.S. plans to end combat operations next August and leave 50,000 troops in the country, compared with 115,000 now. U.S. decisions on deploying more troops to Afghanistan may partly hinge on being able to meet those aims.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, said on Wednesday that he did not think any decisions would have to be made until April or May next year.
Shifting the date for ending combat operations would be a decision that would have to be made in Washington, he said. But Odierno said he believed there was enough flexibility in the U.S. plans to allow for a delay in the vote.
As a leader of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arabs, Hashemi is defending their interests in insisting on a greater voice for Iraqis who fled abroad after the 2003 invasion.
The bulk of the Iraqis who have taken up temporary shelter abroad, mainly in neighbouring Jordan or Syria, are Sunnis -- and Hashemi wants their votes.
But the election law always entitled Iraqi refugees to vote and the electoral commission has been putting together ambitious plans to set up voting stations in embassies abroad.
People close to the negotiations with Hashemi say his complaints could have been dealt with by having the electoral commission set up a mechanism for allocating seats to refugees -- there was no need to tear up the entire election law.
Hashemi's action may be an indication of the lingering deep mistrust between Iraq's majority Shi'ites and Sunnis after all the years of sectarian slaughter.
As a Sunni he likely had no faith in assurances from the Shi'ite-led authorities that his complaints would be addressed if he signed the election law into force.