Iraq election commission seeks ruling on opening race to suspected Saddam loyalists

By Qassim Abdul-zahra, AP
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Iraq election panel seeks ruling on candidate ban

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s ballot process was thrown back into uncertainty Thursday after election officials asked the nation’s highest judicial authority for a final ruling on whether to open next month’s balloting to hundreds of candidates banned because of suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The request by the election commission could re-ignite feuds between Shiite-led authorities and Sunnis who claim they are being politically undermined before March 7 parliamentary elections — which U.S. officials hope could be a milestone in reconciliation among Iraq’s rival groups.

Just a day earlier, Sunni leaders were celebrating an appeals court decision to temporarily set aside the election blacklist — with more than 450 names — and allow the candidates on the ballot. The ruling called for authorities to wait until after the voting to resume probes into possible ties to Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.

Shiite officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political bloc, denounced the court ruling as a violation of Iraq’s drive to purge all high-level posts of any ties to Saddam’s Baath party.

The election commission chief, Faraj al-Haidari, said Thursday the Supreme Judicial Council is being asked whether the appeals court ruling is binding. There was no deadline for a decision, but there is pressure for a quick reply.

The official campaign period was scheduled to open Sunday, but it’s now been pushed back until Feb. 12, said Hamdiya al-Husseini, a member of the election commission.

Iraq’s parliament has scheduled an emergency session for Sunday to discuss the turmoil.

In the meantime, tensions are expected to grow. Both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide traded sharp words even before the announcement of the election commission action.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said postponing the vetting of candidates until after the election was “illegal” by allowing possible Baath sympathizers into the political process.

The most prominent Sunni on the blacklist, Saleh al-Mutlaq, said that any rejection of the appeals court decision would be considered interference by the government. “And this is illegal,” he countered.

“Turning back the appeal decision will escalate tensions and is unacceptable,” al-Mutlaq said.

Sunnis have viewed the blacklist as another attempt by the Shiite-led government to quash their political voice, even though the list includes Shiite figures as well.

The White House is deeply worried that the showdown could undercut the credibility of the election among all Iraqis. Last month, Vice President Joe Biden met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to try to find a compromise — and reportedly suggested a plan similar to the appeals court’s decision.

This brought swift accusations of U.S. strong-arm tactics.

Ali al-Lami, head of the vetting committee that drafted the blacklist, claimed the “U.S Embassy played an active role in pressuring for the return of the banned candidates.”

Al-Lami, a Shiite, is also a candidate for parliament.

Iraq has pushed hard to weed out Saddam-era officials from public offices and security forces — a policy initiated by the United States shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Many Sunnis believe the policy went too far — penalizing innocent people who had to join the Baath party to advance in their chosen careers or gain favors such as the right to study at top universities. The loss of so many experienced professionals also hampered the functioning of many government ministries in the years after the U.S.-led invasion.

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