February 20, 2010 - 10:29PM
The Sunni wing of Iraq's leading nonsectarian political coalition has said it will drop out of next month's election as a result of alleged Iranian influence on a Shi'ite-led vetting panel that blacklisted hundreds of candidates.
The announcement on Saturday raises the likelihood that the legitimacy of the March 7 parliamentary vote will be called into question. US and United Nations diplomats have expressed fears that a disputed result could also open the door to a new round of violence and delay plans for American troops to leave Iraq.
Further raising the stakes, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue called on other parties to join it in withdrawing from the vote. It stopped short, however, of advocating a boycott by Sunni voters - a strategy blamed for depriving Sunnis of a political voice in the past.
In a statement explaining the step, spokesman Haidar al-Mullah said the party decided to pull out of the vote after US Ambassador Christopher Hill and Army General Ray Odierno, the top American military commander in Iraq, each described the Shi'ite leaders of a candidate-vetting panel as having ties to Iran.
He described the panel's work as an Iranian-influenced process and said, "The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda". The vetting panel is led by Shi'ite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi. It banned more than 440 candidates whom it described as loyalists to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
Most of the blacklisted candidates are Sunni, although some are Shi'ite. Among those barred from running is Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, the head of the National Dialogue party. Al-Mutlaq has said he quit the Baath party in the 1970s.
In a speech last week to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, Odierno said the US had direct intelligence that al-Lami and Chalabi "are clearly influenced by Iran". Odierno also accused al-Lami of having been "involved in various nefarious activities in Iraq for some time".
A day later, Hill told reporters in Washington that "absolutely, these gentlemen are certainly under the influence of Iran".
Hill added: "We remain concerned about Iran's behaviour toward its neighbours. Iran should have a good relationship with its neighbour, but it needs to do a much better job of respecting its neighbour's sovereignty."
A perception among Sunnis that they are being shut out of the election could set back progress the US military made in 2006 and 2007 in reversing the insurgency, which threatened Iraq with civil war.
A breakdown in security could also hamper US plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August, a step that is critical to President Barack Obama's new focus on Afghanistan.
The National Dialogue currently has 11 members in parliament, including al-Mutlaq. It is the main Sunni wing of the Iraqi National Movement, the nation's top nonsectarian coalition. The Shi'ite wing of the National Movement is headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Shortly after al-Mullah issued his statement on Saturday morning, another party, the National Council for Tribes of Iraq, said it also would drop out. The party includes both Sunnis and Shi'ites.
© 2010 AP