BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials met late into the night Wednesday to determine how many candidates should be barred from running in the March elections after a panel determined that they had ties to Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party.
The decision last week by the Justice and Accountability Commission, which handles Iraq's de-Baathification efforts, outraged Sunni Muslim voters and cast doubts on whether more than 400 contenders would be included in the parliamentary polls.
Sunni politicians called the ban an effort to disenfranchise Iraq's Sunni minority, and warned that sidelining Sunnis could lead to unrest and a return to support for insurgents in the absence of fair representation. A smooth vote in March would help pave the way out of Iraq for U.S. forces.
Sunni leaders had held out hope that the Independent High Electoral Commission, which is reviewing the decision, would scale back the purge and reinstate some candidates.
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Instead, a senior Iraqi official who's directly involved in the negotiations told McClatchy on Wednesday that the ban might be expanded to more than 500 potential candidates because a review of documents by a mixed-sect legislative committee had found that even more people should be barred from running. He added that sectarianism didn't play a role in the investigation, saying, "Half of them are Shiite."
"The Justice and Accountability Committee of parliament went through every name again and they saw some other documents and added names," the Iraqi official told McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because the decision isn't final. "There were 439 with documents to bar them. Now it's 525 total."
Faraj al Haidari, the head of the electoral commission, declined to comment on "leaked figures" and said the commission was still in talks with the Interior Ministry and de-Baathification officials over how to handle the large number of candidates recommended for the ban. It's not only Sunnis who fall under the ban, and other Sunni candidates with clear records are sprinkled among other electoral lists that aren't included in the purge.
"Tomorrow we will have the lists, and we will contact the candidates named to tell them that they do not qualify according to the regulations," Haidari said.
Officials involved in the negotiations said privately that the Independent High Electoral Commission was seeking a way to mitigate the uproar by extending the ban only to the leaders of lists or those with the strongest cases against them under laws relating to members of the former regime. Including everyone on the banned candidates' tickets could hurt the chances that the election will be considered fair and transparent.
"Many people are calling and saying, 'We hate the Baath Party, so why are we banned?' " the Iraqi negotiator said.
Izzat al Shabendar, a Shiite Muslim legislator on the Justice and Accountability committee, confirmed that officials are considering extending the ban and said, "Numbers may indeed rise." Shabendar said he supported banning some candidates, but he argued that the process and timing were unhealthy for Iraq's attempts at national reconciliation.
"The political climate cannot tolerate what this shady commission is doing," Shabendar said, referring to the Justice and Accountability Commission. "It's not because it's going after candidates with Baathist connections that I criticize it, but because it has a filthy sectarian agenda and is manipulating the rules and regulations to attain its goals."
The last general elections, in 2005, dealt a blow to ordinary Sunnis, whose main political blocs boycotted rather than participate in elections that were conducted while the country was under U.S.-led occupation. The resulting lack of Sunni political representation had repercussions in the allocation of Cabinet seats, local council posts and jobs in the security forces.
This time, Sunni candidates appear eager to participate, although factions are fragmented and riven with infighting. Add the fractious relationship with their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, and it's clear why political observers worry whether Sunnis will turn out on Election Day.
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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