(RFE/RL) -- The list of nearly 500 candidates barred from running in Iraq's upcoming parliamentary poll has yet to be finalized, but it is already fanning sectarian tensions.
Many Sunnis are among those banned last week by an Iraqi electoral committee from participating in the March 7 poll due to their purported ties to the banned Ba'ath Party.
Disqualified candidates have the right to appeal and several have already done so ahead of the Committee for Integrity and Accountability's final ruling, expected on January 19.
The ban highlights the alienation felt by many Sunnis going into the election, as well as the lingering resentment Shi'ite leaders harbor against those with ties to Saddam Hussein's former regime.
That situation has led to fears that the tensions could spark sectarian violence like that seen before the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, which Sunni groups boycotted. Any new outbreaks of violence in Iraq could, in turn, postpone the departure of U.S. troops planned for the end of 2011
There are growing signs that those fears could become reality.
In the central province of Najaf today, local officials warned Saddam loyalists to move out within 24 hours or face an "iron fist," according to AFP.
The news agency cited a statement in which the officials said: "The Ba’ath gang of Saddam has one day to leave the province or we will use an iron fist against those who have failed to distance themselves from the Ba’ath and Al-Qaeda."
Ba'athists have been accused carrying out a deadly triple bomb attack in Najaf Province last week.
"The council's next measure will be to purge local government institutions of Ba'athists," the statement said.
On January 17, key Hussein ally and cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, was sentenced to death for ordering the gas attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabja. The death sentence, his fourth, was seen by observers as a sign that Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government is not about to forget the crimes committed by the former Sunni regime.
The United Nations has asked the Committee for Integrity and Accountability to overturn its decision to ban the nearly 500 candidates from running in the March poll.
UN special envoy Ad Melkert met with members of the electoral commission on January 16, but no details of those talks were released.
The Committee for Integrity and accountability, however, called on the UN representative to "stop interfering in the affairs of Iraq, a sovereign country governed by laws, which have been voted by the people."
The electoral committee, which is tasked with approving candidates and removing unsuitable candidates, announced the ban on January 14.
Iraq's chief electoral official Hamdia al-Husseini told RFE/RL's Iraqi Service last week that the candidates were banned in accordance with laws designed to keep Ba'athists from power.
"Today, we received a memo from the Integrity and Accountability Commission,” she said. “In accordance with this memo, the electoral commission council decided to exclude 500 candidates in keeping with the accountability and justice [de-Ba'athification] law. The decision was taken and will be published in the press."
The Ba'athist Party is outlawed by the constitution, but some Sunnis believe that ban is being used by the majority Shi'ite government to exclude Sunnis from state posts.
Among the disqualified candidates are Iraq's current Defense Minister Jassem al-Obeidi, a Sunni member of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, and prominent Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlak, an outspoken critic of the government who has allied himself with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.