Thu Feb 25, 2:28 pm ET
BAGHDAD – A prominent Sunni lawmaker announced Thursday that his party would participate in parliamentary elections, less than a week after pulling it from the race.
The decision effectively lifts the lingering threat that minority Sunnis would boycott the vote, which the U.S. hopes will bolster national reconciliation efforts and pave the way for American combat forces to go home.
Lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq is himself banned from taking part in the election by a committee tasked with vetting candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. He says he quit the party in the 1970s and yanked his party from the race last Saturday to protest his being blacklisted.
At a news conference Thursday al-Mutlaq announced that his National Dialogue Front would contest the race, and called on Iraqis to go to the polls.
"After so many calls from our supporters, the Iraqi people, not to give others a chance to spoil our project, your brothers in the National Dialogue Front have decided to actively participate ... in the upcoming elections," he said.
But in Iraq's hurly-burly political world, it was unclear whether al-Mutlaq's reversal would signficantly affect the turnout or the result.
Asked to explain his turnaround, al-Mutlaq replied: "We do not want to be a reason the Sunni people lose."
Popular Sunni opinion seemed mixed on whether al-Mutlaq's decision would significantly affect the March 7 election or their decision to vote.
"Al-Mutlaq's group has a considerable weight in Iraq and a lot of Sunni people decided to boycott elections after the decision to bar al-Mutlaq, but now they are happy with this decision and they will go to the polls," said Adil Naji, 55, a Baghdad resident.
But Michael Hanna, an analyst on Iraqi affairs at the Century Foundation in New York, said it was questionable whether al-Mutlaq's previous decision to keep his party out of the election would have led to a wider Sunni boycott. He said after Sunnis widely boycotted the January 2005 election, they were shut out of the political process. That boycott was followed by a sharp increase in violence.
"It was such a disastrous experience that the notion of a boycott itself has lost a lot of credibilty," he said.
Al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front has 11 seats in the outgoing legislature, the second-largest Sunni bloc in parliament. He fared well in last year's provincial elections, especially in the Sunni heartland of western Anbar province.
His is the main Sunni faction in a secular alliance with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Their pairup in the Iraqiya coalition is expected to pose a tough challenge to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition.
The National Dialogue Front is fielding 175 candidates in the election and is considered one of the stronger Sunni parties in the race. Other Sunni parties expected to attract votes are one led by Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, a key figure in Anbar province, and another led by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.
The decision by the Shiite-dominated committee to blacklist al-Mutlaq and hundreds of other candidates, most of them Sunnis, raised fears that Sunnis might shun the election or view the results as tainted.
The U.S. has tied its troop drawdown to a fair and smooth election process. An eruption of election-related violence could slow or stop the withdrawal of combat forces slated for the end of the summer.
In a sign of the potential violence, police on Thursday found a minibus packed with explosives in the town of Saqlawiyah, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) west of Baghdad.
U.S. officials have been closely watching the nationwide vote, for signs it will be free and fair. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Iran and other unidentified neighbors of Iraq of trying to influence the vote.
Washington has long been worried about the influence of Iran, also ruled by a Shiite majority, on Iraq. Many Shiite political groups here have long ties with Iran that date back to their exile days under Saddam, when many political figures sought refuge in Iran.
The Iraqi government, meanwhile, vowed to provide extra security to Christians in the northern city of Mosul. The city is considered one of the last strongholds of the insurgency, and minorities including Christians have often been targeted by insurgents.
The Iraqi government said it would also set up a committee to investigate a recent spate of killings against Christians there.
The announcement came as five people were killed in the city Thursday, according to police officials. None of the five is believed to be Christian, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.