Iraqi Panel Bans 2 Sunni Politicians From March Elections

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An Iraqi panel issued a final ruling Thursday to bar two prominent Sunni politicians from running in next month's elections, a move that is likely to raise tensions between the Shiite-led government and Sunnis who claim they are being politically undermined.

The back-and-forth over a decision to blacklist hundreds of candidates from the March 7 vote because of ties to Saddam Hussein's former Baathist regime has threatened to mar the balloting process, which U.S. officials hope could be a milestone in reconciliation among Iraq's rival religious groups.

Ali al-Lami, head of the Shiite-led political vetting committee that drafted the blacklist, told The Associated Press he had been informed by the court of its decision against Sunni lawmakers Salah al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani.

Both men, who are members of Iraq's parliament, were disqualified from the March 7 vote because of Baathist ties, al-Lami said, claiming "the evidence was overwhelming."

Al-Mutlaq and al-Ani are the most prominent Sunni lawmakers to be disqualified. Their initial rejection by al-Lami's committee weeks ago was seen by many Iraqis as proof of a campaign against Sunnis, even though many Shiites also are on the blacklist.

Al-Mutlaq, a fierce critic of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has acknowledged he was a Baathist until the late 1970s but quit the party. He could not immediately be reached for comment, and an aide said al-Mutlaq was not aware of the ruling Thursday night.

Al-Ani took the helm of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament after its moderate leader Harith al-Obeidi was assassinated in June 2009.

A seven-judge appeals panel issued the order as part of its review of 177 candidates who have appealed a decision by al-Lami'scommittee to exclude them from the ballot. More than 200 other candidates have either failed to appeal or were replaced by with other hopefuls by their party alliances.

Election officials had asked the nation's highest judicial authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, for a final ruling on whether to open next month's balloting to the banned candidates after an appeals court temporarily set aside the initial ban.

Some Sunnis have threatened to boycott the vote if the blacklisted candidates are not allowed to run. Belief among Sunnis that they are being shut out of the election could set back progress the U.S. military made in 2006 and 2007 in reversing the insurgency, which threatened Iraq with civil war.

Moreover, a breakdown in security could also hamper U.S. plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August, a move that is critical to President Obama's new focus on Afghanistan.

Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has pushed hard to weed out Saddam-era officials from public offices and security forces, a policy initiated by the United States shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

But many Sunnis believe the policy went too far — penalizing innocent people who had to join the Baath party to advance their careers or gain favors such as seats for advanced university degrees.

The election will be a crucial test whether Iraqis can vote in a government capable of overcoming deepening ethnic and sectarian rivalries, or whether those divisions will dissolve into violence that threatens the country's unity and regional stability.

Mutlaq along with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, lead the Iraqi National Movement, a secular coalition backed by Shiites and Sunnis as well as former members of Saddam's regime and its military.

The coalition is among a handful of powerful alliances by political parties putting pressure on al-Maliki, who has been campaigning on improved security with his State of Law coalition. Many see al-Maliki's fierce push to ban Baathists as an effort to maintain his grip on Iraq's top office.