In Iraq, banned Sunni candidates back in the race

A ban on hundreds of (mostly Sunni) candidates in Iraq was lifted Wednesday. The ban was reversed after senior Sunni politicians threatened to boycott the March 7 national election.

By , Staff writer

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    Iraqi Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Baghdad January 6, 2010. Al-Mutlaq, the leader of the second largest Sunni party in Iraq, was among hundreds of politicians banned from elections.
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An Iraqi appeals commission has lifted a ban on hundreds of candidates, allowing them to run in the March 7 elections. But if the ruling stands, there's a catch: those blacklisted will still be subject to investigation after the vote for past ties to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Senior Sunni politicians had threatened to boycott the election after a controversial process which banned more than 500 people, for everything from Baath Party membership to intelligence agency links.

“They have the right to run in the election,” said Hamdiyeh al-Husseini of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) Wednesday. The appeals court would examine their files after the vote, and any links mean “they will be eliminated,” according to Agence France-Presse.

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The ruling sparked further controversy, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party declaring that the appeals commission could only rule on individual cases, but not order a blanket lifting of the ban.

“We have heard that such a decision has been made by the appeals commission, but we have not received anything official yet,” says Judge Qassim al-Aboudi, an executive officer of the IHEC.

Credibility of election threatened

The ban threatened to damage the credibility of the elections, and was red-flagged by Washington and the United Nations as increasing the possibility of greater instability.

“I myself am not in favor of a boycott; there is nothing to gain from that, and everything to lose,” says Saleh al-Mutlaq, the leader of the second largest Sunni party in Iraq, who was among hundreds of politicians banned from elections in a controversial de-Baathification process.

“As a result of this [banning] maneuver, Sunnis will be marginalized in national elections yet again,” Mr. al-Mutlaq told the Monitor. “Repercussions could be serious. If the people find they cannot work for the required change through political means, in their frustration they may turn to any other means at their disposal and create a situation of chaos once again.”

Sectarian and civil war surged across Iraq, especially after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 contributed to record death tolls of 3,000 per month and ethnic cleansing of many neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Minority Sunnis ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party for three decades, but the 2003 American invasion paved the way for domination by the 60 percent majority Shiites.

“Many underestimate the importance – the urgency of this crisis,” says political analyst Haider al-Musawi. “Saleh al-Mutlaq and [banned fellow Sunni politician] Thafir al-Ani represent 35 years of oppression to the Shiites – who are a majority. They were not very smart to make statements like ‘Baathists will have 40 seats in the next parliament,’ and similar ones that scare people even more.”

Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq’s first national election in 2005, but later came to realize that the boycott simply removed them from decision-making in Iraq. Despite the latest de-Baathification moves, in which Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission had rejected 572 candidates, other politicians say the latest Sunni threat was a political bluff.

“Now there is awareness and conviction that boycotting will not serve any purpose,” says Dhia al-Shakerchi, an independent Shiite parliamentarian.

Return of nationalism?

“It has become evident to the people that the religious parties – whether Sunni or Shiite – were the womb in which sectarianism was conceived,” says Mr. Shakerchi. “You can feel this in the way the political parties themselves have changed their platforms from Islamist to nationalistic.”

“The secular trend is seeking to establish itself,” says al-Shakerchi. “I believe that Iraqis who seek to bring this about will not be satisfied with being left out and absented from the political process and fair representation.”

The election campaign officially kicks off on Feb. 7, but some large printing houses are already working three shifts a day to keep up with the demand for campaign materials from more than 6,000 candidates.

Still, some Iraqis are already pushing to get out the vote. Leaflets handed out on Wednesday in some Shiite districts were titled “vote for your future.” “Vote so that Baath will not rule again,” instructs the leaflet. “No to terrorism.”

More bombings of Shiite pilgrims

On the back was the full printing of a Shiite prayer specific to the 40th-day mourning ceremony that culminates on Friday, in which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to Karbala, scene of the 680AD martyrdom of one of the most revered Shiite saints, Imam Hussein.

“Choose the path of Al-Hussein; not the path of Al-Baath,” read the leaflet. “Vote so that our mothers will not be bereaved [for the death of their children].”

Violence once again on Wednesday visited the columns of pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala. A car bomb in the town of Twereej, southeast of Karbala, killed 21 pilgrims and injured another 128, according to Iraqi police. A booby-trapped bicycle targeting a police patrol injured another 22.

Sunni militants have for years targeted large Shiite religious ceremonies in Iraq. Pilgrim Haider Judy Kathum was not deterred by the attacks. “They strengthen our resolution,” the father of one said in Karbala. “The explosions will never stop us and those of us who are killed are martyrs – they are proud, as are their families.”

Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report

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