Iraq electoral panel questions appeals ruling on barred candidates

By Leila Fadel and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 2:57 PM

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's electoral commission on Thursday asked the country's highest judicial power to decide whether a ruling to allow barred candidates to run in national elections March 7 is binding.

An appeals court's decision Wednesday to allow hundreds of candidates -- the most prominent of whom are Sunni -- onto the ballots despite supposed ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party angered the Shiite political establishment, which has accused the panel of bowing to U.S. pressure.

The ruling said in essence that candidates could run for office, but that if they won, they would be scrutinized after the election for alleged ties to Hussein's regime.

Western officials have said the proposal would reduce the risk of a Sunni boycott that could render the entire election process illegitimate. But it may have created a new political crisis as officials in the Shiite-led government rallied Thursday to condemn the ruling as an illegal move prompted by U.S. officials.

"Postponement of the application of the Accountability and Justice law until after the election is illegal and not constitutional," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement posted on his Web site.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a fiery cleric who leads a movement supported by the Shiite poor, denounced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. officials for their role in what he called a violation of Iraqi law.

"It will be a disgrace on the forehead of this miserable government," Sadr's statement said. "I warn the odious occupation and the United States of America against their interference in the internal affairs of Iraq."

As the electoral commission asked Iraq's supreme court whether it is bound by the ruling, the government moved to counter the political backlash. On Saturday, Maliki, the Presidency Council, the parliamentary speaker and the top judge in the supreme court will meet to discuss the ruling's legality. If no decision is made, an emergency session of parliament that Maliki has requested would meet Sunday.

Maliki's political bloc said the ruling was politically motivated.

"The State of Law coalition believes there were pressures applied on the appeals court to produce this biased ruling," said Ezzat Shahbandar, a member of the bloc.

The Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, assigned to purge Hussein loyalists from government, last month barred more than 500 candidates from the upcoming elections, sending shock waves through Iraq's fragile political system.

Wednesday's reversal of that decision, which many had criticized as a ploy to weed out secular and Sunni competition, has raised concern that the door is now open for Baathists to return.

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 Accountability and Justice Commission, the predecessor to the de-Baathification commission instituted by the United States, has long been controversial. Many Iraqis say its purge went too far, persecuting innocent people who had been forced to join Saddam Hussein's party to further their careers.

Alwan is a special correspondent.

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