BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's Shi'ite-led government said today a decision by an appeals panel to suspend a ban on candidates with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath Party until after an election was illegal.
Political wrangling is heating up ahead of the March vote, seen as a crucial test for Iraq as it emerges from years of conflict unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion and tries to make peace between once-dominant Sunnis and the Shi'ite majority.
An appeals panel said candidates barred by the Justice and Accountability Commission, a body set up to ensure Saddam loyalists do not return to public life, could stand in the March 7 vote, but would still have a case to answer.
"Postponing implementing the law of the Justice and Accountability Commission till after the election is illegal and not constitutional," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement on his website.
It was unclear if the government could contest the panel's decision -- much of the process of banning the candidates has involved creative interpretations of the law and the legality of the commission that drew up the list is also in question.
The appellate panel's decision was also rejected by Shi'ite parties, which along with minority Kurds bore the brunt of Ba'ath Party oppression under the rule of Sunni dictator Saddam.
Some suspected U.S. interference. The panel's decision mirrored a proposal by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Iraq's "de-Ba'athification" rules were originally drawn up by U.S. administrators after Saddam was driven from power in 2003.
"[The] decision was submissive to outside influences," said lawmaker Karim al-Yaqubi of the mainly Shi'ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA). "Iraqis inside are not allowed to interfere in the judiciary so how is it that outsiders are interfering?"
Members of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition dismissed the decision. Allies in the current government, Maliki and the INA will be rivals in the election.
The candidate ban was seen by many Sunnis as a conspiracy by Shi'ite-led groups to keep them from a fair share of power even though the list has more Shi'ite names and a disproportionate number from smaller, cross-sectarian alliances.
Sunni lawmaker Salih al-Mutlaq, who is on the list, said the decision was a "victory" for the Iraqi people.
'Learn A Lesson'
Sunnis largely boycotted the last national vote in 2005, and their resentment fuelled a bloody insurgency. Weary of the bloodshed, politicians have tried to be more cross-sectarian.
Amid the simmering row over candidates, recent attacks on Shi'ite pilgrims on a religious trek are adding to sectarian tensions, which have eased since their peak in 2006-07.
The stakes are high in the coming election. Whoever wins will rule Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw and will also preside over several multibillion-dollar oil contracts that could turn Iraq into one of the top three global oil producers.
While political leaders in Baghdad issued denunciations, some Shi'ite pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala welcomed the temporary lifting of the ban, despite suffering a spate of attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist extremists.
"The Ba'ath Party died when Saddam died," said Ali Adil, a 48-year-old civil servant. "We cannot implement Saddam's policy of excluding others. Politicians should learn a lesson from Saddam if they want to build Iraq in a correct way."