BAGHDAD (Reuters) - More Shi'ite candidates than Sunnis have been barred from Iraq's election because of links to Saddam Hussein's Ba’ath party, politicians said today, potentially defusing a row that threatened to reopen sectarian wounds.
A decision by a panel to ban 511 candidates under a law outlawing the Ba’ath party outraged many Sunnis, who dominated Iraq for more than two decades under Saddam, and raised fears the legitimacy of the March 7 election could be undermined.
The parliamentary election is a test of Iraq's growing stability as violence starts to fade and U.S. troops prepare to end combat operations in August and withdraw by the end of 2011. Sunni resentment could potentially fuel a lingering insurgency.
But two-thirds of the list handed to electoral authorities by the Justice and Accountability Commission was composed of Shi'ites, according to a copy received by Reuters. The list appeared weighted more against secular alliances than Sunnis.
"This is just a general massacre of democracy," said Hashim al-Habubi, a member of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani's Iraq Unity coalition, which includes prominent Sunni tribal leaders.
"The lists are indiscriminate, not sectarian or secular or Islamist. It's just a message for the Ba’athists that this is not the time to return. Tensions eased after everyone saw these lists," he said.
The Ba’ath party is illegal under Iraq's constitution. The panel that drew up the lists of banned candidates replaced a "de-Ba’athification" committee set up by U.S. administrators to purge Saddam loyalists after the 2003 invasion.
But two of the panel's most prominent members are also candidates in the election for the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition dominated by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), an openly religious Shi'ite party formed in Iran.
That gave rise to suspicions it was being used by factions in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to marginalize Sunnis ahead of the vote.
Others believe it deliberately targeted secular rivals who had been expected to perform well against the overtly Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since the invasion.
"They used this as part of their electoral campaign. This is not a wise decision," said Maison al-Damiloji, a secular lawmaker from the Iraqiya alliance of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite.
The list included 30 or so candidates from Maliki's State of Law coalition and around 20 from ISCI's Iraqi National Alliance.
The secular coalitions fared worse. Allawi's Iraqi Unity had 72 candidates on the list while Bolani's coalition had 67 of its candidates excluded.
Banned candidates can appeal to a special seven-judge panel.