By Ernesto Londoño
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 6:39 PM
BAGHDAD -- The two most prominent Sunni politicians under scrutiny for alleged sympathy to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party have been barred from participating in the March 7 parliamentary election, Iraqi officials confirmed Thursday.
Sunni lawmakers Salah al-Mutlak and Dhafir al-Ani were among more than 500 candidates labeled as Baathists by a committee run by two Shiite politicians who are candidates in the election.
Under Iraqi law, sympathizers of the Baath Party, which oppressed Shiites and Kurds for decades, cannot hold public office.
But the timing of the purge and the manner in which it has been conducted have worried American and some Iraqi officials, who fear a renewal of sectarian violence. Any violence threatens to mar the election and undermine confidence in Iraq's nascent democracy as the U.S. military withdraws.
"What this whole issue tells us is that the positive signs of political maturation that we saw just one year ago have not continued to develop in a positive direction," said historian Reidar Visser, who runs historiae.org, a popular blog on Iraq politics. "Instead, they have been reversed."
The announcement last month that more than 500 candidates had been disbarred under Iraq's de-Baathification law sent shock waves through Iraq's political system. Though the list included roughly an equal number of Shiites and Sunnis, it disproportionately targeted candidates from Sunni-led and mixed secular coalitions.
The two officials who run the commission that vetted candidates for Baathist ties, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Lami, are candidates in the largest Shiite bloc. The slate stands to gain by the disenfranchisement of popular Sunnis and secular candidates.
Lami has said he and Chalabi did not personally vet candidates, and he has defended the commission's work as fair and lawful. He said candidates' names were compared against a database of documents from the former regime. The exact criteria used to disqualify people have not been clearly explained, and some barred candidates say they have not been given access to the files.
Candidates on the list may appeal their disbarment before an appeals court. The court announced last week that it would need weeks to review the appeals, a decision that could have allowed for candidates to win election, only to be later removed from office But the judges, under heavy political pressure, have agreed to complete all the appeals by the end of this week.
The list has been winnowed down to 177 because parties replaced some barred candidates and others chose not to appeal.
The de-Baathification of candidates has become the dominant theme of the campaign season, which officially begins Friday. It has eclipsed bread-and-butter issues such as security and the government's inability to deliver basic services.
Shiite politicians have staged rallies in southern provinces to denounce the Baath Party and its alleged sympathizers in a campaign that U.S. officials privately say has taken on an air of McCarthyism.
Some Sunni leaders have threatened to call for boycotts, and warned that there could be civil war if a large number of Sunnis are left with the impression that religious Shiite leaders backed by Iran rigged the vote.