New blow to election credibility

The nationalist Iraqiya bloc suspends campaigning after a court upholds a ban on candidates for their past links to the Baathist Party.

BAGHDAD // Any lingering hope that Iraq can hold a credible and peaceful election suffered a further blow yesterday when the leading secular nationalist bloc suspended its participation. The Iraqiya list, led by the former president Ayad Allawi, announced a three-day halt to its campaign after an appeals court upheld an exclusion order preventing Saleh al Mutlaq and Dhafer al Ani, two of its senior candidates, from standing on the grounds that they were pro-Baathist.

Iraqiya leaders called for an urgent meeting with the president, Jalal Talabani, the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and the parliament speaker, Ayad al Samarrae, to "examine the means of creating the best climate for the elections". They also demanded the federal supreme court overturn the ban, which Iraqi critics and international observers say has been forced through with scant regard to the constitution.

"If we don't receive a reply, we will take a difficult decision," Mayssun al Damalduji, an MP and spokeswoman for Iraqiya told reporters. She did not elaborate, but if the result were to be a complete withdrawal by the bloc, it would destroy any pretence of a truly national election and would likely cripple the next government. Iraqiya was expected to be a major competitor to Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition and the other big sectarian Shiite list, the Iraqi National Alliance, in the contest to decide who leads the war-torn country.

The US has been pinning its hopes for a troop withdrawal on a successful election, fearing that if the widespread disenfranchisement that marked the 2005 ballot were repeated, the insurgency would reignite. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the 2005 vote, choosing instead to fight against a Shiite and Kurd- dominated government they saw as beholden to Iran. A repeat of that worst-case scenario had, for a time, seemed unlikely, amid a newly nationalist and non-sectarian atmosphere, and with a wide cross-party participation in pre-election preparations.

That rapidly fell apart, however, when a Shiite-led de-Baathification committee, of dubious legal standing, blacklisted more than 500 opposition candidates. While some more minor figures withdrew or were reinstated, Mr Mutlaq, who left the Baath party in the 1970s, and Mr al Ani, along with others, were not. A panel of judges originally announced that candidate bans would be pushed back until after the March 7 vote, giving them enough time to fully consider the appeals in accordance with a 30- to 60-day legal requirement. It then rapidly changed its mind, after coming under pressure from the government, and upheld the bans.

According to Iraq's constitution, the federal supreme court should have the final say on the matter, but there has been no real adherence to due legal process throughout this affair. An earlier request to the country's highest legal authority over election bans elicited the unexpected response that it was not a matter for the court to decide. In Baghdad the election climate is now distinctly that of a growing storm.

An official in Salah al Mutlaq's party offices warned of a violent reaction to the ban. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said party supporters would "use all means" to defend their right to participate in the democratic process. "The Shiite parties, the State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance are trying to stop us from running in the election," he said. "We are not calling for the security situation to be worse but we will demand our rights by all methods. By politics we hope, but Iraqis will use force if necessary."

There was little indication yesterday that an eleventh-hour reconciliation was still possible. Hassan Selman, of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISCI), one of the principle Shiite parties, said the ban on Mr al Mutlaq should hold. "Banning him meets the demands and dreams of the majority of the Iraqi people who want to get rid of the Baathists," he said. "We do not want the Baathists to have a powerful voice again."

Mr Selman rejected suggestions that violence was now more likely to increase in the weeks remaining before polling day. "The Iraqi government is strong and I have faith in the security forces to keep the country safe," he said. In the wake of the ban there were reports on Friday and Saturday of vigilante style de-Baathification in two of Iraq's southern provinces, with officials suspected of being former Baath party members summarily removed from local council and security service jobs.

"If the Iraqiya list does well in the election that may still be enough to calm down the Sunnis and former Baathists and prevent a total collapse. But if there is cheating, or if the Iraqiya cannot stand we will see Iraq return to the days of slaughter," said Ahmed Yasin, a professor of political science at Baghdad's Mustansariyah university. "The country will be divided once again, and this time, no American surge will bring it back together."