By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 13, 2010; 5:57 PM
BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials announced Saturday that 145 candidates will be barred from participating in parliamentary elections next month after an appellate court ruled that their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party make them ineligible.
The court reinstated 26 candidates who had been labeled Baathists by a vetting commission run by Shiites participating in the March 7 elections.
Barred candidates denounced the process that led to their expulsion as arbitrary, legally dubious and masterminded by proxies of Tehran.
"It is not possible to raise the white flag," the most prominent among them, Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlak, said Saturday on state-run television. "The entire country and its people shall be threatened."
Later, tensions were further exacerbated when explosions struck the Baghdad offices of five political parties, including Mutlak's, injuring 11 people, the Associated Press reported. Four of the parties targeted were Sunni.
Mutlak's slate, the Iraqi National Movement, which is run by Shiite former prime minister Ayad Allawi, decided to delay the start of its electoral campaign by at least three days, even though the campaign season kicked off Friday.
"This situation puts a major question mark on the feasibility of the next election," the slate said in a statement calling for parliament and the judiciary to review the matter urgently.
Many Western observers and Iraqi leaders, though, see the ruling as a done deal. U.S. officials, in particular, have expressed concern, saying that it sets the stage for Sunnis to feel disenfranchised after the elections and has dampened hopes of easing tension between Sunnis and Shiites. This could spark a fresh wave of violence as U.S. troops pull out.
"I believe after this decision there will be no hope for any kind of reconciliation," said Nabil Khalil Saied, one of the disqualified candidates.
No prominent Sunnis have called for a boycott, as many did ahead of the 2005 elections. But Sunni leaders say the de-Baathification process has taken on the air of a witch hunt and hardened sectarian lines just as friction had been easing. It has dominated the political debate at the expense of more pedestrian issues such as restoring security, improving basic services and resolving complex national disputes.
The saga began last month when the Justice and Accountability Commission announced that more than 500 candidates would be banned from the elections for alleged allegiance to the Baath Party. Under Iraqi law, Baath Party loyalists cannot hold top government jobs. However, the legal criterion for establishing who is a Baathist is vague and widely disputed.
Shiite politicians Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Lami run the commission. Although the original list included roughly an equal number of Sunnis and Shiites, it disproportionately targeted mixed, secular blocs. The disqualification of alleged Baathists is widely expected to benefit the largest Shiite bloc, which includes Chalabi and Lami.
The appellate court responsible for reviewing the cases decided to delay the rulings until after the election. That would have allowed all candidates to run. But the court buckled under pressure from Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other politicians and agreed to rule on all cases within a few days. Many of those on the original list opted to drop out or were replaced by their parties.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, issued an unusually lengthy and detailed manifesto Friday threatening to derail the upcoming vote by military means.
In an audio recording posted online, the group's shadowy leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said the upcoming vote would consolidate power in the hands of Shiites subservient to Iran.
He criticized Sunni leaders working within the political system as sellouts and urged Sunnis to join the ranks of the insurgency, warning them of what he described as the dangerous alternative.
"The result is that the Persians, the agents of Iran, will come out of these elections more powerful and more influential," Baghdadi said, according to a transcript provided by SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes insurgent statements. "As for us, we will come out weaker and less influential."
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.