Iraq election campaign opens with concern over sectarian disqualifications

Campaigning for the Iraq parliamentary election scheduled for March opened quietly on Friday, shadowed by concerns that some candidates with ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party could be disqualified.

Karim Kadim/AP
Workers install campaign posters depicting ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad Friday. Iraq officially kicked off the campaign season Friday, just hours after an appeals panel banned a number of candidates from running in the March nationwide elections. The posters read in Arabic: "There is no room for the Baath party in Iraq, greetings for the loyalists."

Campaigning opened on Friday for Iraq’s parliamentary elections in an election season marked by high-profile attacks and overshadowed by the banning of more than 500 candidates for alleged ties to former dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.

The legal start of the campaign had been delayed for five days while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the courts wrangled over whether the "accountability and justice" commission was legally entitled to ban the candidates. The committee is expected to announce on Friday that about 30 of the candidates had won appeals and can run in elections.

The appeals process though withheld the ban on two of the most prominent Sunni politicians Salah al-Mutlaq and Dhafer al-Ani, elected in the last parliament and both running as part of the secular Iraqiya list headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a major rival to Prime Minister Maliki. Dr. Allawi was himself a member of the Baath party in the 1960s and early '70s, but he eventually broke from Hussein and became a leading exile pushing for regime change.

The list of disqualified candidates includes a significant number of Shiites as well as Sunnis. But the committee, headed by two Shiite politicians who themselves are running for parliament, is widely seen by Iraqis as pursuing a crackdown on secular candidates who pose a threat to the ruling religious Shiite parties that came to power after Hussein's ouster.

 “It is all politically motivated,” says Saria Jassam, a college employee who lives in Fallujah. “ Why they didn’t revoke their parliamentary immunity one year or two years ago? It is obvious; they know that Al Mutlak is a patriot.”

Coming to terms with Iraq’s Baathist past has emerged as a major theme in this election, which features 6,500 candidates. This is seen as the first parliamentary poll that would return a truly representative government after Sunni Arabs, who felt disenfranchised by a US-backed, Shiite-dominated political system, largely boycotted the 2005 election.

Although sectarian violence that brought the country to civil war two years ago has dropped dramatically, high-profile attacks aimed at government ministries, and more recently at Shiite pilgrims, have continued in the run-up to the March 7 vote.

Slow start to campaigning

With three weeks to go, posters and billboards went up in Baghdad and around the country on Friday, although the traditionally quiet day of rest made for an understated start to the campaign.

At one campaign event, member of parliament Safia al-Suhail, an independent who is running under Maliki’s State of Law list, met with dozens of sheikhs from the biggest tribe in the country and pledged to work toward improving government services and dismantling the sectarian hiring system in place at a number of government ministries.

“It is important to get rid of the sectarian quota system that will enable us to put aside discrimination so that any citizen can go to any government department and have their documents issued in a correct manner,” she told leaders of the Bani Tamim tribe.

The power-sharing system set up under US occupation authorities, which gave each major political bloc control over specific ministries, has become one of Iraqis’ biggest complaints.

Many Iraqis say those from the same religious sect or political bloc controlling the ministries are given preference for jobs and go to the head of the line for basic bureaucratic services.

Ms. Suhail, currently a member of parliament and the daughter of a former Iraqi diplomat assassinated by Saddam’s regime, is from the powerful Bani Tamim tribe, which has more than 3 million members spread across Iraq and neighboring countries.

One Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Abed Mutlaq al-Jabouri, reminded the sheikhs gathered for lunch in the garden that many Sunnis and Shiites had given their blood to stop attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Jabouri is from the insurgent strong hold of Huwija, near Kirkuk.

“I will be accused of breaking the Sunni line,” he said of joining the Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition. “I may have lost my standing among Sunni extremists but I have gained standing among Iraqis,” he told them.

Despite the furor over the banning of candidates, the main issues in the election are the lack of basic services seven years after the war and of corruption in Iraq’s fledgling political system and in government.

“If you listen to any one in this country, they are an encyclopedia of grievances,” says Bahktiar Amin, a former human rights minister who is married to Ms. Suhail. “Politicians need to listen.”

With additional reporting from Jamal Naji.

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