Iraq's presidential council has rejected a plan for new provincial elections and sent the bill back to parliament for reworking, a major setback to U.S.-backed efforts to promote national reconciliation.
The ruling came Wednesday despite a reported last-minute telephone call by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to the main holdout on the three-member panel, which has to sign off on laws passed by the legislature. The White House tried to put its best face on the development, saying "this is democracy at work."
The outcome underscored the immense challenges involved in efforts to distribute power among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Such power-sharing agreements are the end goal of last year's buildup of U.S. troops. The hope has been that the declining bloodshed will remove the fear that has paralyzed Iraqi politicians, enabling them to compromise and strike deals across the sectarian divide. And that, in theory, should blunt support for the Sunni insurgency and allow American troops to withdraw from the country.
Many Sunnis boycotted the last nationwide elections, in January 2005, for the 275-member parliament and for local officials. The vote ushered in representational government, but it also gave majority Shiites and minority Kurds the bulk of power.
The U.S. hopes new elections, to be held Oct. 1 according to the draft measure, would give the Sunni more political power and thereby weaken the insurgency.
The main sticking point in Wednesday's decision, however, appeared to have more to do with internal Shiite divisions. The main objection focused on whether local officials or the central government currently led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have the right to fire provincial governors.
"There are some items in this law that contradict the constitution, such as the governor and how to sack him," said Nasser al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker and presidential council spokesman. "There is an objection and it is constitutional. The presidential council has the right to object."
He didn't say who objected.
But Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi later said it was his Shiite counterpart, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
"There were some objections from my colleague Adel Abdul-Mahdi on the provincial law, thus the presidency returned it to the parliament for reviewing," al-Hashemi told the U.S.-financed Al-Hurra TV station.
Kurds supported Abdul-Mahdi's objection, according to lawmakers who attended the council meeting where the elections law was discussed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The three-member panel is led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, though it was unclear whether he signed off on the measure.
Underscoring the importance of the issue to the Americans, Cheney called Abdul-Mahdi on Tuesday to try to persuade him to sign the bill, an Iraqi government official said, declining to be identified because he wasn't authorized to disclose the information.
But Iraqi political divisions may have proved more important than Cheney's plea.
Abdul-Mahdi is a senior official in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shiite party. A provision in the bill allows the Iraqi prime minister to fire a provincial governor, but Abdul-Mahdi's bloc wants that power to rest with the provincial councils, or legislatures, where his party has a strong base of support around the country, the lawmakers said.
Although the presidential council did not sign off on the elections law, it did approve the 2008 budget of US$48 billion and another law that provides limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody. Those laws will take effect once they are published in the Justice Ministry gazette.
U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, which had sought passage of the provincial and amnesty laws as two of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation, had praised the Iraqi parliament when it approved both measures Feb. 13.
On Wednesday, the White House said that it does not believe the council's ruling had dealt a fatal blow to the provincial elections law. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration would have liked the law to move forward without complications, but added: "This is democracy at work."
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey also said the council's action "is a normal part of the democratic process in Iraq." The U.S., he added, does not think there will be a long delay.
It was unclear how quickly legislators could move on reworking a new draft. The Iraqi parliament is on a five-week holiday through March 18. It took weeks of wrangling for to pass the budget and the two laws the presidential council reviewed, finally doing so in a single bundle so that neither Shiites nor Sunnis nor Kurds would feel double-crossed.
Any measure rejected by the council needs a two-thirds majority approval in parliament to pass the second time through, according to Saleh al-Aujaili, a lawmaker from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's faction.
Al-Aujaili criticized the council for putting party interests above the nation's.
"The members of the Presidency Council should study the laws as representatives of the Iraqi people, not their own parties," he said.
Khalid al-Attiyah, the Shiite deputy parliament speaker, also expressed disappointment.
"We expected that all the three laws would be approved together," al-Attiyah said. "It will take us a long time and new agreements now to pass the law."
Millions of Shiites, meanwhile, thronged the streets of the holy city of Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, as Arbaeen commemorations marking the end of a 40-day mourning period for a revered religious figure reached their peak.
Pilgrims headed to the gathering were targeted again by extremists on Wednesday when a roadside bomb detonated near a bus in Baghdad, killing one traveler.
At least 64 people have been killed in assaults this week targeting pilgrims en route to Karbala to honor Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed who died in a seventh-century battle near the city.
The chief of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, Shihab al-Timimi, also died Wednesday of wounds suffered in an ambush. He was 74.
Violence has dropped substantially across Iraq in the last six months as the U.S. has boosted troop levels, former al-Qaida fighters with American backing have switched allegiances and the powerful Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, has declared a cease-fire.
But Wednesday's toll pushed the total number of Iraqi deaths in February to at least 719 _ compared with 610 in January, when violence reached a low not seen since the end of 2005.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.