By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 12:11 PM
BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi appeals court on Wednesday overturned an effort to bar hundreds of candidates from Iraq's upcoming national elections -- opening the door for alleged loyalists of Saddam Hussein to run for office, but at the same time reducing the risk of a Sunni boycott that would lessen the validity of the results.
The panel asked Iraq's electoral commission to postpone the appeals of hundreds of candidates for alleged allegiance to the Baath Party of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. The candidates would be allowed to run in the March 7 parliamentary elections, and those who were elected would make their appeal after the election. If they did not prevail and were deemed unfit, they would be prohibited from taking the offices to which they had been elected.
The plan, which Iraqi officials said Vice President Biden originally proposed during phone conversations last month, means the judicial panel probably would be confronted with only a handful of appeals cases, rather having to process appeals from hundreds of banned candidates in less than two months.
Electoral commission officials were meeting on Wednesday night to decide whether to accept the court's recommendation and allow the barred candidates to run.
The United States and United Nations have pushed for transparency in the appeals process, fearing that if the banning of candidates was seen as sectarian or politically motivated, Iraq's large Sunni Arab minority would feel marginalized by the Shiite-led government and would refuse to participate in the vote.
The Accountability and Justice Commission, tasked with purging Hussein loyalists from government positions, announced the planned candidate ban last month, sending shockwaves through Iraq's fragile political system. The commission barred about 500 candidates -- some of whom were Shiites, but the most prominent of whom were secular or Sunni.
The commission condemned Wednesday's appeals court decision as unconstitutional and said the judges were being unduly influenced by pressure from the United States.
"I appeal to the government and the Foreign Ministry in particular to ask the American Embassy in Baghdad to stop its interference and pressures on the accountability and electoral commissions," the commission's Ali Faisal al-Lami said on state television.
U.S. officials say they are worried that if the targeted candidates were not allowed to participate, many would deem the election illegitimate, and violence would escalate, just as American troops are drawing down in Iraq. Iraq's Shiite-led government has pushed hard to weed out Hussein-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. The loss of so many experienced professionals also hampered the functioning of many government ministries in the years after the U.S.-led invasion.
The accountability commission is led by Ahmed Chalabi, a former U.S. ally who supplied faulty intelligence in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His deputy has been accused by Americans of being involved in militia activity in Iraq and helping to stage attacks on Americans. The deputy denies the accusation and said that during his detention he was tortured by U.S. interrogators.
The upcoming elections are seen as a crucial step toward reconciliation between majority Shiites and the Sunnis who largely boycotted the 2005 election in protest of the U.S. occupation.
Lami, head of the political vetting committee that drafted the blacklist -- and a parliament candidate himself -- said he interpreted the appeals court ruling as allowing the candidates to run. "It gives the right to take part in the elections and then to verify their appeals [against accusations of Saddam ties] after the voting," he told the Associated Press.
A Sunni parliament member, Mustafa al-Hiti, told the wire service he considered the decision a "step forward on the path of democracy in Iraq."
"It upheld the power of law and foiled attempts to politicize it," he told the AP. "We welcome it and hail it as a major factor that will help us see transparent and fair elections."
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.