BAGHDAD &

Iraq's president promised to reject a draft law paving the way for U.S.-backed provincial elections, saying today it would worsen sectarian rifts among Iraqis.




President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and his two deputies need to ratify the law before it can take effect. A decision to send it back to parliament for reworking would likely delay the elections, which were due by Oct. 1. The polls are seen by U.S. officials as a key step toward repairing Iraq's sectarian divisions.




Talabani's rejection had been anticipated after the law was approved on Tuesday despite a Kurdish walkout to protest a secret ballot held on a section dealing with the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk region.




Talabani said he could not approve a law that was approved by only 127 members of the 275-strong parliament. The body had claimed it passed since the 127 represented a majority of the 140 lawmakers present for the voting.




"The president is confident that the presidential council will not pass it," Talabani said, according to a statement issued by his office. The law, he added, will worsen "national and sectarian isolation."




Iraq's electoral commission has said the provincial balloting already needs to be delayed until Dec. 22 because it was too late to make all the necessary preparations.




An official in the commission said the vote would be held in December if the law is approved by the end of this month.




"But if the law is not approved in the coming week, then the date will be changed to sometime in 2009," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.




Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, and other critics predicted the rejection would make a vote unlikely before next year.




Kurdish legislators, along with the two deputy parliament speakers, walked out after lawmakers decided to hold a secret ballot on an article that included a requirement for ethnic power-sharing in Kirkuk.




Kurdish opposition to the equal distribution of provincial council seats among Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs in the Kirkuk region &

outside Kurdish territory but considered by many Kurds to be part of their historical land &

has been a major factor in stalling the law's approval.




The article also transfers security responsibilities in Kirkuk to military units brought from central and southern Iraq instead of those already there, an apparent move to sideline Kurdish forces.




The Kurdish Regional Government, which oversees the three provinces making up its semiautonomous territory, focused its criticism on the decision by parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, to hold the secret ballot in a bid to break a deadlock over the issue.




The Kurds called the decision a "constitutional breach" and a violation of parliamentary rules.




"We appeal to all ... sons of the Kurdistan region to stand in one line to foil this serious conspiracy," the KRG said in a statement, in a plea apparently directed at Talabani.




The elections are expected to redistribute power in Iraq's 18 provinces in what is considered a necessary step toward reconciliation. Many Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial balloting in January 2005, enabling Shiite Muslims and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power.




A preliminary election law setting the October deadline had been touted as a sign that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was making political progress, in addition to security gains. But the Iraqis then deadlocked over a follow-up law establishing guidelines and funding for the vote.




Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Kirkuk contributed to this report.