Banning the Sunni National Dialogue Front from participating in March's parliamentary elections is a reckless move that could further destabilise Iraq, argues Salah Hemeid
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Supporters surround prominent politician Saleh Al-Mutlak as he gives a press conference at his party headquarters
Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission, which is responsible for ensuring the constitutionally banned Baath Party does not return to Iraqi politics, last week decided to ban a key Sunni politician from running in March's parliamentary elections, citing alleged links to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Saleh Al-Mutlaq and his National Dialogue Front will not be allowed to field candidates in the elections, the commission said, because of alleged ties to "terrorism".
The surprise move immediately sparked anger among Sunni Iraqis and stirred fear that the fragile Iraqi political process will plunge into another dangerous crisis ahead of the national elections hoped by Washington to stabilise the violence-torn nation and facilitate the planned US troop withdrawal next year.
Ali Al-Lami, a senior official of the parliamentary commission, announced that the list of candidates submitted by the National Dialogue Front was one of 15 that had been rejected. He said the group was banned under Article 7 of the Iraqi constitution, which bars political parties promoting Baathism, sectarianism, racism and terrorism.
However, the commission did not divulge details of the charges against Al-Mutlaq, who has denied any wrongdoing. The ban, enforced by Iraq's independent election committee, is subject to appeal in the country's supreme court, and Al-Mutlaq has said he will appeal to the United Nations in order to have the ruling rescinded.
Iraqi Sunnis largely boycotted the country's 2005 elections, handing Shias and Kurds disproportionate power in the 275- member House of Representatives. Al-Mutlaq's ban this time around could prompt another boycott by some Sunnis, this time during a critical period for the US military as it moves ahead with plans to start withdrawing combat troops from Iraq by June 2010.
The decision has also triggered wide popular discontent among Iraqi Sunnis, who have charged that it lacks legal justification and is prompted by sectarian rivalry. Following last week's ruling, some Sunnis held demonstrations in Baghdad and other provincial cities, with others warning that they would press ahead with protests if the decision was not revoked.
Leading members of Iraq's Sunni minority have also threatened to boycott the elections scheduled for 7 March if the electoral commission upholds the decision. A significant Sunni boycott could deprive the election of legitimacy, undermining efforts toward reconciliation in the country and driving Iraqis into a new round of civil strife.
The edict also prompted reactions from outside Iraq, with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa sending his deputy, Ahmed Bin Helli, to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi leaders. Moussa said that Bin Helli's mission would focus on League-backed reconciliation efforts in the country, but Arab diplomats have said that Moussa intends to push for a rethinking of the ban on Al-Mutlaq.
Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also worried that the ban will further marginalise Iraqi Sunnis. Writing in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Editor-in-Chief Tareq Al-Homeid warned on Sunday that the ban was designed to "target a large community in Iraq", referring to the Sunnis.
"De-Baathification has now turned into de-Sunnification," wrote Al-Homeid, who is widely believed to reflect the opinions of some members of the Saudi royal family.
According to an unofficial biography, Al-Mutlaq was born in 1947 in Falluja in the Iraqi Sunni heartland and is a member of an influential tribe. After finishing his secondary education, he was a student at the College of Agronomy at Baghdad University, from which he graduated as an engineer.
While at university in Baghdad, Al-Mutlaq was head of the Baathist student union and was later sent by the party to study at a British university. Upon his return, he worked briefly as a university lecturer before bring recruited to run Saddam's family investments in farming and poultry, a charge he has always denied.
Though he has openly courted factions that still support the Baath Party in Sunni areas, Al-Mutlaq has insisted that he was thrown out of the Baath Party in 1977 and has argued that his former contacts with the Baathists do not warrant the present ban. He has also claimed that his opposition to Iran's interference in Iraq could be behind attempts to exclude him from this year's elections.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections Al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front won 11 seats, and following the group's improved showing in last year's provincial elections in some Sunni provinces Al-Mutlaq entered into coalition with former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia and former Baathist, who many expect could fare well in the March elections and ensure Al-Mutlaq a say in decisions on Iraq's next prime minister.
It is widely believed that it is this alliance with Allawi that has prompted the present ban. Shia groups that control both the parliament and the government fear that even a moderate success of the "Iraqi List" formed by Al-Mutlaq and Allawi last November could bring the Shia-controlled government down.
Over recent weeks, Shia officials have also suggested that Sunni groups have been receiving political and financial backing from Sunni Arab governments to help them reorganise before the March elections. The officials claim that these groups, including the Al-Mutlaq-Allawi coalition, have received billions of dollars intended to influence the outcome of the election.
They also claim that the alliance was forged either under US supervision or to support an end to the Shia empowerment that has taken place in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. According to these scenarios, Washington and Arab Sunni governments want an election that would result in a Sunni-Kurdish controlled parliament that would either undercut the Shias or weaken their control of the government.
The Shias' worst fear is that Washington may now be working to bring the Baath Party back into the political process. According to various reports, US officials have met with Baath Party leaders in several Middle Eastern capitals in order to negotiate such a comeback. The Obama administration has also put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to ease restrictions on the return of Baath Party leaders to public life.
The Shias fear that were they allowed to rejoin the country's government and army, the Baathists would orchestrate a more definitive comeback by organising a military coup. Such worries could be justified, given that the Baathists have never made a secret of their desire to stage a comeback in Iraq.
For his part the British ambassador to Iraq, John Jenkins, said in testimony before the Chilcot Inquiry in London on Sunday that a military coup in Iraq was a possibility.
Many senior officers in the Iraqi armed forces had served under Saddam, Jenkins said, and "there is clearly a balance to be struck between using the professional competence and experience of former army officers under Saddam to provide the backbone of the modern Iraqi security forces and dealing with the suspicions and fears of others that this is the reintroduction of irreconcilable elements of the Baath Party."
Jenkins said that the recent spike in bombings in Baghdad had renewed accusations that unreconciled elements of Saddam's Baath Party were involved and were aspiring to be an "irredentist force within Iraq."
"If you look at the history of Iraq, of military coups in Iraq, you have to think that it is always a real possibility in the future," he said.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday Iraqi security forces locked down parts of Baghdad and searched neighbourhoods in a wide-ranging operation across the city, a defence ministry official saying that information had been received that vehicles containing bombs had been placed in the capital.
Five explosions ripped through the Anbar province last Thursday killing at least eight people and injuring at least 10 others. Those targeted were law-enforcement officials, and the blasts came only a few days after twin explosions killed at least 24 people in Anbar and ripped off the hand of provincial governor Qassim Mohamed Fahdawi.
They also follow some 40 assassinations in the province, Al-Mutlaq's stronghold, which have primarily targeted politicians, police officers, tribal chiefs and religious figures.
All this raises the stakes in Iraq all the higher, and underscores fears that as US troops begin to withdraw from Iraq the country's already fragile security could be deteriorating still further.