BAGHDAD: Election officials pushed Wednesday for reform of Iraq's election law after polling chiefs suddenly handed in their resignations complaining of parliamentary and judicial interference, throwing next month's vote into disarray.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that failure to resolve the crisis could delay the general election and send Iraq into a "tunnel we might not be able to get out of".
Doubts are already swirling over whether the polls -- currently set for April 30 -- could even be held nationwide as anti-government fighters still control a city on Baghdad's doorstep.
Much is at stake in the election, as Maliki bids for a third term with his security credentials badly damaged by a surge in violence to levels not seen since 2008, while the country looks to rebuild its conflict-battered economy and dramatically boost oil production.
Hours after the Independent High Electoral Commission's nine-member board collectively handed in their resignations on Tuesday, IHEC's chairman said amending a disputed article in Iraq's election law could provide a way out.
"If there is any problem, they (parliament) have to amend it through legislation," Sarbat Rashid told AFP, after holding talks with diplomats from the UN mission to Iraq, the US embassy, and the European Union mission, as well as parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.
IHEC's board has in particular been frustrated with what critics say is a vague provision in Iraq's electoral law that requires parliamentary hopefuls to be "of good reputation".
Based on that article, a judicial panel has barred several prospective lawmakers, including Maliki opponents such as former finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, with no obvious avenue of appeal.
Parliament has meanwhile reportedly ruled that IHEC must not bar any candidates unless they have criminal convictions, a decision an IHEC spokesman said was at odds with that of the judicial panel.
A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the resignations had been submitted to parliament, "I do not expect that parliament will accept them, because the timing is critical for elections."
"Most likely, what IHEC would like to have done, they would like the article to be amended."
"IHEC's problem is that they are squeezed between the judicial panel and the parliament, and they are trying to extract themselves."
The diplomat said because the resignations were unlikely to be accepted by parliament, elections were likely to still go ahead next month.
- Maliki urges fast amendment -
But the mere prospect of a postponement has sparked concern, with Maliki warning in his weekly televised address that "if IHEC stays this way, that means ... the election will be delayed."
"We will enter a tunnel we might not be able to get out of," the premier said. "Troubles will come, one after another, against the state."
Maliki called for IHEC to withdraw the resignations, and urged parliament to pass an amendment to the law "as fast as possible".
The looming vote has been a factor in the rising bloodshed in recent months, analysts and diplomats say.
Maliki and other Shiite political leaders have been determined to be seen to take a hard line against militants, rather than reach out to the Sunni Arab minority in a bid to undercut long-term support for militancy.
But despite widely trumpeted operations against insurgents, bloodletting has continued, with more than 450 people killed so far this month, and upwards of 2,100 this year, according to an AFP tally.
And anti-government fighters have held control of the Sunni city of Fallujah, which lies just a short drive from Baghdad, for more than two months.