BAGHDAD // A controversy over banned election candidates that is pushing Iraq's fragile democracy to a breaking point has lurched into a new phase, with the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, agreeing that a judicial appeals committee be allowed to arbitrate on the issue. Until yesterday he had all but rejected the committee's authority after its original decision to temporarily reinstate some 500 barred candidates, many accused of being Baathist sympathisers.
The judicial committee, made up of seven judges, had said those on the blacklist should be able to participate in the election, with their cases reviewed in detail after voting. Anyone found to be in breach of Iraqi election laws would then be barred from taking seats in parliament. That solution had been advocated by the United States and United Nations and welcomed by opposition groups here. For a time it even appeared to have diffused the crisis, but Mr al Maliki, supported by powerful Shiite political blocs running on a strident anti-Baathist platform, insisted it was unconstitutional.
In a move that critics said all but abandoned any pretence of constitutional legality or of judicial independence in Iraq, Mr al Maliki demanded that an emergency session of parliament be called to make "adequate decisions" over the blacklistings. That demand was unexpectedly dropped yesterday. Mr al Maliki said he had been assured the judicial appeals committee would decide by Friday who should be excluded from the election.
The judicial committee had initially cited time constraints as a reason for delaying any candidate exclusions until after voting, saying proper consideration of each case could not be hurried. Under Iraqi laws, banned candidates are supposed to have 60 days to appeal their exclusion; now the process is to be dealt with inside a week. Acceptance by the appeals panel of a vastly speeded-up timetable comes after Mr al Maliki and other leading political figures met Midhat al Mahmud, head of the higher judicial council, on Saturday. That meeting apparently persuaded Mr al Mahmud to adjust the committee's original ruling.
Mr al Maliki, his allies and even some of his leading political opponents appear to be satisfied, at least for the time being, with how the situation is now being handled. Haider al Mulla, a spokesman for Salah al Mutlaq, one of the prominent Sunni politicians originally included on the blacklist, backed the judicial appeals committee, despite the adjusted timetable. "We retain confidence in the committee and we are confident that Mr Mutlaq's right to take part in the election will be upheld," he said. "No one will stop him from running."
However, this latest twist in a baffling constitutional political affair has fuelled controversy among those who say the judiciary has come under overt government control. Powers of government are supposed to be separate from the judiciary, the latter supposedly impartial and a safeguard of legal procedure. Although there has been no indication that the accelerated timetable means the judicial committee will uphold the blacklisting - as Mr al Maliki and his allies apparently advocate - it has added to a sense that legal processes are being made up ad hoc.
Sabah al Saadie, head of parliament's integrity committee, said the judicial appeals panel had lost its independence. "The appeal committee has come under political pressure and appears to have submitted to the government's wishes. That is totally unacceptable because the committee should be independent. It is also illegal and we want to have an emergency session of parliament to register that we withdraw out confidence in the committee."
With the United States hoping to withdraw its 100,000 troops before the end of next year, Washington has been desperate for the election to be seen as legitimate. That may now be impossible, even if the blacklisting controversy itself fades, because of the way it has been handled. "The confusion that has surrounded all of this, the confused decisions from al Maliki, from the judicial appeals committee, from the justice commission [which produced the blacklist] basically amounts to politics here exploding," said Ala Allawi, an independent professor of political science based in Wasit province. "There has been pressure on one side from the Americans and on the other from Iran, which is the only explanation for this.
"There is no independence underlying any of these decisions and that means the problems are likely to persist after the elections. "Our only hope is that the Iraqi people send a clear message with their voting that this has been unacceptable and that Iraq must be under Iraqi political control." The original blacklist was compiled by the justice and accountability commission, a Shiite-dominated group with disputed powers to purge Baathists from taking part in the election. It initially named more than 500 candidates, many of whom were subsequently replaced by their own parties.
Those opposed to the blacklist, including many secular nationalists, say it was drawn up as part of an attempt by the government and Shiite political blocs to retain their grip on power by banning groups expected to do well in the polls. firstname.lastname@example.org