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Candidate bans worsen Iraq's political turmoil

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Candidate Bans Worsen Iraq’s Political Turmoil

Published: January 17, 2010

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials have done little to clarify who, exactly, has been disqualified from running for Parliament in March because of ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. They did, however, make clear on Sunday that, contrary to Iraqi television news, the government’s own spokesman was not among declared a Baathist and therefore unfit for office.

The fate of the country’s defense minister was another matter. So was that of dozens of members of a political alliance led by one of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s top rivals, Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister since 2006.

More than a week after Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission first announced that it had disqualified at least 15 parties to run for Parliament, it remained unclear how many candidates out of more than 6,000 who have registered would be excluded — and which ones had been..

On Thursday, Iraq’s election commission announced that 499 were disqualified, but it postponed the publication of a list on Sunday, saying that still more names would be added Monday.

Far from dissipating, the political turmoil caused by the accountability commission — a little-known government agency headed by an official who until August was in an American prison on charges of orchestrating a 2008 bombing in Baghdad that killed two American embassy workers, two American soldiers and six Iraqis — only worsened over the weekend.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of Parliament from Mr. Bolani’s bloc, compared the swirl of events to watching a Bollywood movie from India — in Hindi, without subtitles.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” Ms. Damlouji said.

The disqualification of so many candidates threatened to undermine a national election that has widely been cast as another test of Iraq’s nascent democracy. According to many lawmakers and experts, Iraq appears to be failing, raising fears of violence rather than political reconciliation as American troops steadily withdraw, nearly seven years after the American-led invasion that toppled Mr. Hussein.

Among those known to be disqualified is Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni leader of a broad secular coalition that also includes a former Shiite prime minister, Ayad Allawi. The coalition, known in Arabic as Iraqiya, is widely seen as the most formidable challenger to Mr. Maliki’s bloc and a second, largely Shiite alliance.

Mr. Mutlaq had been expected to do well among Sunni voters, who largely boycotted Iraq’s first post-Hussein parliamentary elections in 2005, but his disqualification seemed to splinter, rather than unite, the coalition. “This can only serve to reignite sectarian war,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, a research organization, said of the disqualifications.

The opacity of the process only compounded the confusion and anger over the weekend. The government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, was reported by at least one Iraqi television channel to be among those disqualified because, he said in a telephone interview, his name was similar to someone else’s on the list.

The commission announced Sunday that he and three others had not been disqualified, but declined to specify who had been. Falah Shanshal, a Shiite lawmaker who heads the parliamentary committee overseeing the Accountability and Justice Commission, denounced leaks of names to the news media — including presumably, Mr. Dabbagh’s — as “all untrue,” but he too declined to be specific.

Another member of the same committee, Rashid Azzawi, said Sunday that he had resigned in protest because of the way the disqualifications had been carried out.

The disqualification of Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, appeared most puzzling of all. He has run the ministry since 2006, by most accounts capably, and is running as a candidate on Mr. Maliki’s coalition. A spokesman for the ministry, Brig. Gen. Ali Salih, declined to comment on Sunday, but said a response was expected Monday.

“Our political parties don’t have real political and economic programs,” said Hazim al-Nuaimi, the director of Middle Eastern studies at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. “So instead of struggling over programs and candidates’ capabilities, they are trying to exclude each other — even within the same party or alliance.”

Some officials pleaded for calm and patience, suggesting some compromise was possible. Mr. Dabbagh said that while “politically it might be a disturbing issue,” another panel in Parliament had the power to consider appeals by disqualified candidates.

Mr. Maliki, for his part, has said nothing to suggest he opposes the disqualifications, but he emphasized “the importance of not politicizing the process,” according to a statement issued by his office on Saturday.

The accountability commission, a remnant of the original committee created to purge Iraq’s government ministries of former leaders of the Baath Party after the American invasion in 2003, appeared to be digging in.

Its chairman, Ali Faisal al-Lami, stood by the disqualifications in spite of the furor, and the country’s election commission has, so far, agreed. Mr. Lami previously headed the de-Baathification committee, as it was known, until his arrest in 2008. Once he was released in August, he returned to the new commission.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Lami’s commission accused the United Nations of interfering in Iraq. The United Nations, with the United States, has lobbied against the disqualifications.

Reporting was contributed by Nada Bakri, Riyadh Mohammed, Duraid Adnan and Omar al-Jawoshy.

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