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Ba'ath Dispute Delays Iraq Election Campaign

Women carry pictures of relatives killed during Saddam Hussein's regime during a demonstration against the Ba'ath Party in Karbala on January 21.
Iraq's electoral commission says the start of campaigning ahead of next month's parliamentary elections will be delayed by five days.

The March 7 vote is regarded as a crucial test for the country's national reconciliation process ahead of a planned U.S. military withdrawal.

The decision to put off the election campaign, which had been due to start on February 7, comes after an appeals court decided last week to overturn a ban on candidates suspected of links to the outlawed Ba'ath Party.

The ruling was rejected by parties of the Shi'ite majority, which along with minority Kurds bore the brunt of Ba'ath oppression under former President Saddam Hussein.

"My opinion as an Iraqi citizen, and it is the opinion of most Iraqi people, we reject the return of Ba'athists because the Iraqi people have suffered enough from the Ba'athists and their crimes," Baghdad resident Ahmed Ali told Reuters. "Actually their return to the elections is a big mistake."

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the court decision "illegal and not constitutional" in a statement on his website.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki convened parliament to discuss the issue in an extraordinary session on February 7.

An official with the Independent High Electoral Commission, Hamdiya al-Husseini, said the political campaign would now be put off until February 12 to allow time for the row to be resolved.

Al-Husseini said the body had asked a high court to rule on the legality of the appeal judges' decision.

On February 3, the appeals panel overturned a ban on some 450 "entities" including candidates, parties, and blocs.

The ruling would allow the candidates to stand for election, and be subject to investigation only after the polls.

The candidates had been barred by the Justice and Accountability Commission -- set up to ensure former Ba'ath members did not return to public life.

"As for the Ba'athists, they have the right to participate in the elections, as they are just like other parties in Iraqi society; but the first thing is that their hands should not be stained with blood," Baghdad resident Mazen Ali said, explaining that he supported the reversal of the ban. "The second thing is that the opinion of the Iraqi people is a decisive one in the elections -- that means everyone has the right to elect them or not. It is the decision that should be made by people, neither the government decision, nor the Justice and Accountability Commission. The final word is for the people."

Although a minority, Sunni Muslims were dominant under Hussein's rule.

The candidate ban was seen by many Sunnis as an effort by Shi'ite-led parties to marginalize them, although the list also had many Shi'ite names.

In Washington on February 4, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, urged all Iraqi parties to respect the court's decision.

Al-Hashimi warned against "highly unpredictable consequences" if many Iraqis viewed the election as illegitimate.

He also acknowledged that any instability in Iraq could alter the timetable for U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

In his address to Congress last month, U.S. President Barack Obama said that nearly seven years of war in Iraq were coming to an end, with all U.S. combat troops to pull out by the end of August.

The ruling to reinstate the candidates was welcomed by the Obama administration, with State Department spokesman Philip Crowley hailing it as "a very useful step."

Crowley also urged the Iraqi government to "make sure that this continues to be an open process."

Sunnis largely boycotted the last national vote in 2005, which was followed by sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07.

compiled from agency reports