Iraqi court lifts mass ban on candidates, cutting risk of Sunni election boycott

By Leila Fadel and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A08

BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi appeals court on Wednesday overturned an effort to bar hundreds of candidates from Iraq's upcoming national elections, reducing the risk of a Sunni boycott that could render the entire process illegitimate.

The panel asked Iraq's electoral commission to postpone until after the March 7 parliamentary elections the appeals of hundreds of candidates accused of allegiance to deposed president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The candidates would be allowed to run, and those elected would deal with their appeals then. If deemed unfit, they would be prohibited from taking office.

The plan, which Iraqi officials said Vice President Joe Biden proposed in phone conversations last month, means the judicial panel would probably face only a handful of appeals cases, rather than having to process several hundred in less than two months.

Electoral commission officials said Wednesday that they will not make a decision until they are officially informed of the appeals court's decision Thursday.

The United States and United Nations have pushed for transparency in the appeals process, fearing that if the mass ban is seen as a sectarian or politically motivated move by the Shiite-led government, Iraq's large Sunni Arab minority will refuse to vote.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the last national elections, in 2005, to protest the U.S.-led occupation. A powerful insurgency ensued, targeting the government and its foreign backers.

The Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, assigned to purge Hussein loyalists from government, announced the ban last month, sending shock waves through Iraq's fragile political system. The panel barred more than 500 candidates; some were Shiites, but the most prominent were Sunni.

The commission condemned Wednesday's appeals court decision as unconstitutional and said the judges had been unduly influenced by 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," said Ali Faisal al-Lami, the head of the commission, speaking on state television.

Lami, who is running as a candidate, said in a phone interview that the ruling is illegal and that the electoral commission has no right to authorize the candidates to run. "The appeals committee should come to us for every step," he said. "We are the only ones that have the authority to deal with this overturning."

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. But many contend that the policy has gone too far, penalizing innocent people and depriving Iraq of skilled government workers.

The U.S. Embassy welcomed Wednesday's decision as a step toward legitimate elections. U.S. officials said they had yet to see the ruling but dismissed Lami's criticism that they had infringed on Iraq's sovereignty.

"Mr. Al-Lami should take up his complaint with the Court of Cassation, not the U.S. embassy," Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Also Wednesday, at least 20 people were killed and 117 injured when a motorcycle laden with explosives detonated among Shiite pilgrims converging on the southern city of Karbala. The attack was the second in three days to target pilgrims walking to the holy city to mark a Shiite commemoration.

Mizher is a special correspondent. Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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