Sectarian tensions rise before Iraq elections

By Leila Fadel and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 26, 2010

BAGHDAD -- A popular Sunni political party backtracked on Thursday from plans to boycott Iraq's parliamentary elections even as rivals threatened to have the party's leader charged with terrorism.

The developments illustrate the increasing tensions as Iraq prepares for the March 7 elections and U.S. combat troops get ready to withdraw by August. The sectarian divide is widening, and the National Dialogue Front said it will not participate in the elections amid fears that Shiite parties have rigged the vote against secular and Sunni candidates.

But Saleh al-Mutlak, the party's leader, said the National Dialogue Front, a party within the secular Iraqiya slate, had received popular support urging its participation. "If Iraqiya doesn't succeed, the whole of Iraq will be in real chaos," he said. "We don't want to be seen as the reason behind that chaos."

Mutlak was the most prominent among hundreds of mostly Sunni and secular candidates who were barred from running in the elections by a commission headed by Shiites, who are also participating in the vote, for alleged connections to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Mutlak's party is the Sunni contingent of the Iraqiya slate led by Shiite former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Ali Falial al-Lami, the executive director of the Justice and Accountability Commission, which vetted candidates, said Mutlak will face criminal charges for funding and backing an armed group of former Baathists.

"We have in our hands confessions," Lami said. "These confessions were documented and endorsed by members of the Iraqi judiciary, and the suspects who gave the confessions are still in custody."

Mutlak has long accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of harassing and unfairly targeting his party. He said some of his bodyguards were arrested four months ago and were tortured and forced to make false confessions to "soil his reputation."

Mutlak and other prominent Sunnis decried the disqualification process as an illegal campaign to root out secular candidates. He and U.S. officials accuse Iran of backing the expulsions, something Lami denies.

On Thursday, the commission also announced the purge of more than 300 officials from the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, for links to the Baath Party.

"We believe there are thousands of others who will be found," Lami said. "These measures will seriously enhance security in Iraq by dismissing any bad elements which carry the Baathist ideology."

Many Shiite candidates have made the return of Baathists the centerpiece of their campaign, overshadowing issues such as security and basic services.

Correspondent Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company