By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- A controversy over the disqualification of candidates threatened Tuesday to undermine the legitimacy of Iraq's recent elections and inflame supporters of a coalition seeking to topple the alliance led by the prime minister.
U.S. officials, who had deemed the elections historic, were growing increasingly concerned by the dispute Tuesday evening, fearing it could lead to violence.
The candidates were barred on election eve by a commission -- run by onetime U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi and other Shiite politicians -- that was empowered to screen government officials for loyalty to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Most of the 55 candidates who were disqualified belong to the Iraqiya list of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, which appears to have done well in secular and Sunni communities.
If the votes for the newly barred candidates are annulled, it could give the Iraqiya coalition powerful ammunition to allege vote-rigging by rival politicians, including some in the Shiite-led camp of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"It will be a very violent reaction," Allawi said in an interview Tuesday. "A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation."
The spat has alarmed U.S. and United Nations officials, who fear it will make it harder for defeated candidates to accept the outcome. Officials said, however, that it was too soon to know whether the controversy would seriously disrupt the formation of a new government.
"I think we'll hear a number of complaints and see a number of white-knuckle moments in the weeks and months ahead," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal Iraqi affairs.
The Justice and Accountability Commission had earlier barred about 500 candidates from running; many diplomats and analysts described the vetting process as arbitrary, politicized and legally dubious.
Faraj al-Haidary, chairman of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said Tuesday night that the votes for the 55 newly disqualified candidates would probably be tallied. Their blocs could then distribute the votes among standing candidates, he said.
Haidary said that under Iraqi law, the Justice and Accountability Commission could theoretically bar more candidates in the days ahead if it submits paperwork before the electoral board certifies them as lawmakers.
Allawi, who is a Shiite, said some of the nine members on the board think the votes should be annulled. He said he feared that politicians who have prominent roles in the government could hijack the process to weaken his slate, which has emerged as a top rival to Maliki's coalition.
The board's members have decided to resolve the issue after all the ballots are counted, according to an official familiar with the deliberations. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Justice and Accountability Commission's latest list of disqualified candidates includes at least one politician running on Maliki's slate, State of Law. Allawi said roughly 30 of the candidates are from Iraqiya.
Sami al-Askari, a lawmaker running as part of Maliki's coalition, confirmed that members of the electoral commission were quarreling over how to deal with the issue, but he disputed any contention that the government is operating in an underhanded way.
"People, of course, will say whatever they like," Askari said. "The decision is for IHEC, and it's not a political issue."
More than 6,000 candidates competed for 325 seats in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Preliminary results are expected Wednesday.
Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert who blogs about politics at Historiae.org, said the last-minute disqualification of candidates poses significant challenges for the electoral commission. Because Iraqis were able to choose individual candidates in the elections -- as opposed to voting for slates that distribute the seats -- disqualifying elected candidates could enrage voters.
"This could create a major problem for the whole process," Visser said. "We have seen that there is no legal framework to deal with these eventualities, so they're creating the framework as they proceed."
U.S. and Western officials were encouraged to see Sunnis vote in droves after their decision to boycott an election in 2005. Many supporters of Iraqiya said that they were angered by the disqualification of candidates and that it motivated them to head to the polls.
Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, who run the Justice and Accountability Commission, are candidates in a coalition that includes most of the religious Shiite parties that control the government -- with the exception of Maliki's party. Chalabi and Lami have called the commission's work lawful and necessary.
Maliki, who is reluctant to be seen as defending Baathists in an election year, has endorsed the bans.
Allawi said the last round of disqualifications, which was announced Saturday, was the latest attempt by the government to weaken his slate. He said one top candidate and scores of campaign workers have been arrested.
"I wish there had been a more aggressive intervention by the United States," Allawi said. "They are bound to help morally and politically with the security of this country and the stability of the country -- make sure the political process is safe."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said American officials did not get involved because the initial cases were reviewed through the Iraqi judicial system, although he allowed that "we would have preferred that the disqualification had been done in a more transparent manner." Many Iraqi officials said an appeals court did a cursory review and acted under political pressure, including a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
Privately, U.S. officials were critical Tuesday of Allawi's threats and the commission's last-minute disqualifications.
"We don't think this particular issue is at a scale that it would challenge the legitimacy of the results," one official said. "But we'd encourage Iraqi leaders to deal with these issues in a constructive way," using established procedures, including the Iraqi courts.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.