BAGHDAD – A top Sunni Arab leader, banned from running in next month's elections, said Monday that a Sunni boycott won't solve a standoff over who can run in Iraq's next parliament — though he stopped short of urging his supporters to vote.
At issue is a ballot purge by a government committee of more than 400 candidates from the March 7 parliamentary elections for alleged ties to Saddam's now-outlawed Baath Party. Saleh Al-Mutlaq is among those who were blacklisted, meaning that he cannot run for re-election for the seat he now holds.
The blacklist, promoted by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is seen as targeting Sunnis, though some Shiites are also on the list.
"Prepare yourself for all possibilities — we are faced with difficult choices during the next few days," al-Mutlaq told a meeting in Baghdad of tribal leaders. "We have experienced the bitter taste of boycott before," he added. "The solution is not in a boycott. The solution is in something else."
"We will not shy away from any choice if we come to the realization that the election will be rigged in advance," he warned.
Al-Mutlaq acknowledged that a voter boycott in the January 2005 election hobbled Sunnis by keeping them out of the interim parliament. A more robust Sunni turnout in December of that year resulted in the many Sunni lawmakers in the outgoing legislature.
A Sunni boycott could throw the election results into doubt and delay the new government for months. That potentially could re-ignite violence between Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the majority Shiites and hamper U.S. efforts to withdraw its troops.
Al-Mutlaq also struck a reconciliatory tone, hinting that a compromise deal might be in the works among Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political leaders.
Sunni leaders have been threatening for weeks to boycott the vote. That has unnerved U.S. and international diplomats who are banking on a fair and open election to smooth Iraq's path ahead as American forces prepare to fully withdraw by the end of next year.
"We are now walking down a road in Iraq that is a very dangerous one in terms of potentially alienating the Sunni community from the political process," said Ken Pollack, a former White House adviser and an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
Pollack said that could lead to Sunnis believing "that violence is the only way to get them what they want in Iraq. ... If Iraqis are moving back toward a civil war, it is going to be exceptionally difficult for President Obama to continue with withdrawal plans."
A seven-judge panel last week ordered the ballot purge of 442 of 535 candidates who were flagged by a Shiite-led vetting panel of having Baathist ties.
Al-Mutlaq has acknowledged he was a Baathist until the late 1970s, when he quit the party. Many Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite — were Baathists during Saddam's reign to secure jobs, promote careers and attend post-graduate studies.