BAGHDAD – A top Sunni Arab lawmaker banned from running in Iraq's March 7 election withdrew his entire party from the campaign Saturday and called on other groups to join the boycott, a move that threatened to undermine the credibility of the vote and raise sectarian tensions.
In announcing his decision, Saleh al-Mutlaq seized on U.S. concerns about Iran's influence in the political process, an allegation likely to resonate with a Sunni community that is historically suspicious of the intentions in Iraq of Tehran's clerical rulers.
Al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front has 11 seats in the outgoing legislature, the second-largest Sunni bloc in parliament, and fared surprisingly well in provincial elections in January last year. The group is the main Sunni faction of the Iraqi National Movement, the nation's top secular alliance that has been expected to pose a tough challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition.
Sunni leaders have been threatening for weeks to boycott the vote after a Shiite-led panel vetting candidates for suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's regime blacklisted more than 400, mostly Sunni candidates, including al-Mutlaq, preventing them from running in the parliamentary election.
The blacklist is seen as targeting Sunnis, though it includes some Shiites. It also has raised allegations of a conflict of interest since the panel vetting the candidates is led by Shiite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who are both running in the election.
That has unnerved U.S. and international diplomats who are banking on a fair and open election to smooth Iraq's path ahead as the Americans prepare to withdraw combat forces this summer and all troops by the end of 2011.
The Sunni leader's decision to withdraw all the candidates from his party from the vote could open the door to a new round of sectarian bloodshed at a time when the Americans may no longer be able to act as a buffer again between the majority Shiites and the once-dominant minority Sunnis.
Mustafa al-Ani, a Dubai-based Iraq expert, said al-Mutlaq's decision also will cause concern in the Arab world and the international community since al-Mutlaq represents a community rather than just himself or his party.
"It's an attempt to strip the election of its legitimacy, but it also will give some rationale to any subsequent violence," he said.
The National Dialogue Front openly charged the vetting committee of being influenced by Shiite Iran and its hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also linked its withdrawal to recent statements by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American military commander in Iraq, that linked the vetting committee to Iran.
"The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda ... the invitation is open to other political blocs to follow suit," it said.
In citing comments by Hill and Odierno that accused Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs, al-Mutlaq may be counting on U.S. backing in his battle against the Shiite leadership.
"Whatever damage has been done to the political process has already largely been done. This is not a comforting development, but I think we should be wary of reading the effect of this move too broadly," cautioned Iraq expert Michael W. Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation. "But it will fuel the anti-Iranian rhetoric associated with this election."
Al-Mutlaq could not be reached for comment, but a close associate said the decision to boycott the vote was borne out of deep frustration at what he said were broken promises for a fair and transparent election.
"Now, we want to participate in the elections and we want to be part of the political process, but Iran is preventing us from doing so," said the associate, lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti.
The front's decision will cast a shadow on the credibility of the election, but was not likely to have an impact of the same magnitude that the Sunni boycott of a January 2005 election had. That boycott robbed the Sunnis of an effective say in running the country, fueled a Sunni insurgency and paved the way for the sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007.
"The withdrawal will have negative, albeit limited, impact, on the elections," said analyst Nabil Salim, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
He said al-Mutlaq's supporters would likely still go to the polls but would cast their ballots for former Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his secular Iraqi National Movement.
Sunnis see attempts at the political disenfranchisement of Baathists as the Shiite way to sideline their community at a time when political tensions are brewing with just over two weeks left for the election of a new, 325-seat parliament.
Already, campaigning for the election is showing a sectarian slant, with banners and posters by candidates from both sides of the sectarian divide delivering thinly veiled sectarian barbs.