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Sunni Iraqis fear disenfranchisement after hundreds of candidates banned

By Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A07

BAGHDAD -- By barring hundreds of candidates from an upcoming parliamentary election, a controversial commission whose members have close ties to Iran is threatening to disenfranchise members of Iraq's Sunni minority and weaken its fledgling democracy.

The commission, led by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi politician who supplied faulty intelligence to the United States in the run-up to the war, and Ali Faisal al-Lami, a former U.S. detainee, was established to help cleanse the Iraqi government of officials who adhered to the ideals of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

But the panel sent shockwaves through Iraq's political establishment when it recently announced the disbarment of 511 candidates for their alleged allegiance to the party. The move has led to recriminations that Iran, through proxies, is trying to rig the vote to ensure that Iraq is solidly in the hands of politicians loyal to Tehran.

U.S. officials, who were caught off guard by the decision, now fear that it could reignite sectarian violence and dash their hopes of political reconciliation in Iraq -- the end goal of the U.S. military strategy known as the "surge."

"If there is no balance, there will be violence," said Mustafa Kamal Shibeeb, a Sunni who was among those banned.

Outside a cemetery in the Sunni Baghdad district of Adhamiyah, Ibrahim Hamid, 22, glanced over a railing at about 6,500 graves of Sunnis buried during Iraq's sectarian war.

"This is Iraq," he said. "Always the men with dignity are banned. I'm sure there is going to be a lot of violence."

Many Sunnis boycotted a national election in 2005 to protest the U.S. occupation. Their disenfranchisement contributed to the rise of an insurgency and a civil war fought along sectarian lines. This time, there is little talk of boycotting, but there is widespread fear that Sunnis will once again believe they got a raw deal.

On Friday, at a Sunni mosque in Adhamiyah, the Iraqi army stopped a demonstration over the disbarments, residents said. Sunnis in Baghdad complain that in recent months the Iraqi army has sharply restricted movement in their districts, stifling commerce and imposing de facto martial law.

"People will keep their mouths shut," said Zaki Alaa Zaki, 38, a member of the local Sunni paramilitary force established by the U.S. military and now controlled by the Iraqi government. "We are the living dead now."

The committee that announced the disbarments is known as the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice. Its chairman, Chalabi, is an erstwhile Pentagon and CIA ally who played a crucial role in the run-up to the invasion. He's fallen out of favor, and most U.S. officials now call him an Iranian agent. Chalabi's deputy on the commission, Lami, spent nearly a year in U.S. custody after being implicated in the bombing of a Sadr City government building that killed two American soldiers and two U.S. Embassy employees. He has denied involvement in the attack and claims that U.S. interrogators tortured him.

An aide to Chalabi said he was unavailable for comment. In an interview, however, Lami said he wasn't to blame that candidates failed to qualify for elections. He also disputed allegations, from U.S. officials and others, that he and Chalabi were acting at the behest of Tehran or in the interest of their own coalition vying for seats in the next parliament.

The list of barred candidates, which was endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, provides vague justification for the banishments. It includes Sunni and Shiite politicians, but it seems to disproportionately target prominent Sunnis and secular leaders. There were 6,592 candidates who were screened for Baathist ties.

Being labeled a Baathist in today's Iraq, which is led by exiles driven out by Hussein, is tantamount to being called a communist during the McCarthy era. The disbarment would be likely to benefit Maliki's coalition and the predominantly Shiite bloc that includes Chalabi and Lami.

Barred candidates have three days to appeal to a newly empaneled body of three judges. Sunni politicians and U.S. officials worry that the appeals process could inflame tensions and potentially derail the election, scheduled for March 7.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill said he worries that the process could overwhelm the democratic system.

"It's a tough issue. It involves deep emotions," Hill said in an interview. "Frankly, the weight of these emotions sometimes exceeds the capacity of the institutional framework to handle them."

Vice President Biden called the Iraqi speaker of parliament Sunday to push back the disbarment of politicians until after the vote, according to the speaker's spokesman. But the call and other, similar efforts by the U.N. envoy to Iraq and Western diplomats appear to have gone unheeded.

Some Sunni leaders and analysts said more aggressive American intervention is the only way to avert a bigger crisis.

"We need to hear from you Americans. Please don't just watch this from the outside," said Mithal al-Alusi, a former member of the now-disbanded commission on de-Baathification. "The White House needs to move and move quickly."

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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