A judicial panel is reviewing a resolution to ban a top Sunni Arab leader from contesting forthcoming parliamentary elections, a decision that has sparked protests in Sunni areas and threatened to undermine the poll.
A government commission last week decided to ban hard-line Sunni Arab member of parliament Saleh al-Mutlaq and his National Dialogue Front party from seeking re-election in the March 7 ballot on the grounds that he has ties to the banned Baath party.
The ban has angered Mutlaq’s supporters and his Sunni Arab and secular allies in the Iraqi National Movement, INM, list, who threatened to pull out of the race if he was not reinstated.
"If Mutlaq is banned, the whole list will boycott elections. We will also consider withdrawing from the entire political process in Iraq," said Haider al-Mulla, spokesman for the INM.
Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis say they have been marginalised in Iraq’s Shia-dominated politics since the fall of the Sunni-led Baathist regime in 2003.
Sunni Arab participation in politics is deemed especially critical for Iraq’s stability and national reconciliation. A Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 elections undermined the credibility of the government and was followed by widespread sectarian violence.
The INM is led by Mutlaq, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who is considered Iraq’s most influential secular leader, and two of Iraq’s most powerful Sunni politicians, vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi and deputy prime minister Rafie al-Essawi.
Some have speculated that Allawi could be a key contender for prime minister as current premier Nuri al-Maliki faces an uphill battle for re-election.
"Allawi's alliance poses a threat to other political powers, so any ban on one of his leaders is in the best interests of those powers," said political activist Wathiq al-Hashemi, head of the Iraqi Organisation for Media Development in Baghdad. "If Allawi withdraws from the elections, the political process will be in serious danger."
The decision by the government’s Accountability and Justice Commission provoked protests in Ramadi, Fallujah and Garma, predominantly Sunni areas west of Baghdad. In Ramadi, 300 demonstrators chanted slogans accusing the commission of sectarian bias.
"We already expected this to happen because Mutlaq is loved by Sunnis, Shia and secular people so he posed a threat to Islamic parties," said Sabah Naji, 32, a teacher who took part in demonstrations against Mutlaq’s ban in Ramadi.
"Most people here want to vote for Mutlaq because he is Sunni, secular and he is not Islamist or affiliated with tribes. Now I think more than half of the Sunnis won't bother to vote," Naji added.
Ali Faisal al-Lami, executive manager of the commission, said the constitution forbids any person who promotes the Baath Party to participate in elections. If a candidate charged with links to the Baath Party heads a political party, all of the party members are also barred.
The commission was created as part of the government’s efforts to root out Baathist power and influence in post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
According to the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, IHEC, the Accountability and Justice Commission recommended a ban on 15 political parties this year, totalling 390 individuals.
"Mutlaq was banned because he promotes the ideas of the Baath Party. We received a complaint last year from the deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament [Aref Taifor] that Mutlaq was promoting Baathist ideas publicly and privately. When we investigated the issue, we found that it was true," Lami said.
Mutlaq left the Baath Party in the late 1970s as Saddam Hussein was taking over party leadership. In interviews he has openly expressed sympathy for former Baathists who he feels have faced discrimination since the party was driven from power in the 2003 United States-led invasion.
Although Mutlaq's party holds only 11 seats in the 275-seat parliament, he retains significant support in Sunni areas. Together with the Allawi's Iraqiya List, which currently holds 25 seats, the INM bloc was expected to do well in the parliamentary election.
He has been quoted in local media calling the allegations of his allegiance to the Baath Party as "absolute rubbish".
"I will fight until the end," Mutlaq told supporters last week at a news conference after the move to ban him was announced.
Mulla told IWPR that Mutlaq’s coalition will continue to put pressure on Baghdad to dismiss the ban and will "head to the United Nations and Arab League" if necessary. The INM spokesman said that president Jalal Talabani and top Shia clerics have called for the decision to be overturned.
"Mutlaq is not an ordinary political figure for the Americans. He stands for the balance needed in the Iraqi political equation to contain Islamic fundamentalism," said Bashir al-Hajim, a writer and analyst for Baghdad's Al-Mutamar newspaper.
Hajim predicted that “American pressure….will ultimately affect the decision".
As it stands, parliament has agreed to form a panel of seven judges chosen by the Iraqi Supreme Council, the highest court in Iraq, to determine the legitimacy of the ban on Mutlaq and his party.
Independent member of parliament Taha al-Lyhbi told a news conference that the panel will have the final say in the matter and all parties must abide by its decision.
The names of the judges were not being disclosed, Lyhbi said, to avoid threats or influence. The timing of the committee's ruling has not been revealed either.
"The electoral commission has not yet taken any action regarding the accountability commission's decision. We think it is wise to wait and see what parliament says," said Hazem Bader, head of the IHEC's complaints department.
While many fear that Mutlaq’s ban could alienate Sunni Arab voters, others believe they are eager to head to the polls.
"I do not think people will boycott elections as they did in 2005, because those who boycotted – the Sunni Arabs – realised later that they made a mistake," said Hamid Fadhil, a political sciences professor in Baghdad. "For them, now is the time to act."Global Arab Network
Zainab Naji and Ali Kareem are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalists Faleh Hassan and Uthman al-Mukhtar contributed to this report from Baghdad and Fallujah. This article produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr. net