By Leila Fadel
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A14
BAGHDAD -- A popular Sunni party announced Saturday that it will boycott Iraq's parliamentary elections next month, but it stopped short of urging supporters not to vote.
The decision by the National Dialogue Front to pull out of the March 7 elections could cement views here that Shiite religious parties have rigged the vote against secular and Sunni candidates.
Saleh al-Mutlak, who leads the party, was among about 500 candidates disqualified from the elections because of their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. A panel of judges signed off on most of the disqualifications. But before the appeals process, all but 171 were replaced by their parties or withdrew. Only 25 prevailed upon appeal.
"It's a bad environment for the election," said Haider al-Mullah, a spokesman for the National Dialogue Front, which has 11 seats in parliament. "They are preventing good leaders like Doctor al-Mutlak from running."
The disqualifications have caused widespread fear that the elections will be deemed illegitimate.
Sunni Arabs boycotted the 2005 elections because of the U.S. occupation. Their decision contributed to the rise of an insurgency and a civil war fought along sectarian lines.
The election vetting committee, the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, has long been controversial. The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill have said the group's top two members, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, are influenced by Iran.
The commission is accused of abusing legal mechanisms to weed out Sunni and secular competition. Chalabi and Lami, his deputy, are both running in the election as part of the Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.
The National Dialogue Front is a major Sunni contingent of a popular secular list led by Shiite former prime minister Ayad Allawi. The larger Iraqiya alliance plans to continue its campaign despite the withdrawal of Mutlak's group.
Iraqi officials said Saturday that meetings with Mutlak and his group were ongoing. Mutlak could not be reached for comment.
Special correspondent Dalya Hassan and correspondent Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.