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Iraq Panel Reinstates Election Ban Amid Shi'ite Ire

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has staked much of his reelection hopes on being credited for a sharp fall in violence over the past two years.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- An Iraqi appeals panel that angered Shi'ite leaders by suspending a ban on candidates accused of links to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party until after an election reversed its decision on Sunday, politicians said.

The change came as Shi'ite parties held protests and vowed to purge Ba'ath loyalists. It took some wind out of a furor that has stoked tensions before the March 7 vote, and parliament delayed a planned debate on the issue as a result.

The panel decided it had made a mistake thinking it needed to consider the entire list of nearly 500 candidates instead of just 177 politicians who appealed, said Falah Shanshal, a senior lawmaker. It will examine the appeals before the vote, he said.

The Shi'ite-led government's ire and calls for a campaign against Ba'athists could lead to a dangerous witch-hunt that might reopen sectarian wounds between Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam and the Shi'ite majority just as overall violence fades.

Fanning fears of a Ba'athist revival might benefit Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shi'ite Islamist leaders, as it could win back voters who might be leaning toward secular, cross-confessional groups, like ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's.

"We should not stand here with our hands tied during this sensitive period. We should take revenge for our martyrs, prisoners, the displaced, and the homeless left by the former regime," Baghdad provincial governor Salah Abdul-Razzaq, a senior member of Maliki's Dawah party, told protesters.

"We will de-Ba'athify the Baghdad administration," he said, adding that the Ba'ath Party "and its instruments Al-Qaeda" were behind recent bomb attacks that have killed dozens of Iraqis in Baghdad and in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala.

Local government leaders in Basra affiliated with Dawah and the other main Shi'ite blocs, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, made similar vows at a rally to purge the city of Ba'ath sympathizers.

Dominating The Ballot

The ban on the candidates imposed by a body controlled by Shi'ite politicians with ties to Iran is dominating the ballot, viewed as a critical juncture as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw and Iraq signs multibillion-dollar deals with oil firms.

The vote could lead to a more stable, if still fragile, democracy or possibly lurch Iraq back into sectarian conflict. The furor has already led to a delay in the start of election campaigning to February 12 from February 7, although that did not stop today's rallies from looking like campaign events.

Shi'a along with Iraq's minority Kurds were brutally suppressed and often slaughtered by Sunni dictator Saddam.

Sunnis largely boycotted the last national elections in 2005 and resentment at their loss of power helped fuel a ferocious insurgency. U.S. officials fear that Sunnis may take up arms again if they feel they are being disenfranchised this time.

The focus on Ba'athists benefits the ruling Shi'ite parties as it distracts attention from corruption, still-creaky public services like power, and security breaches that have allowed several major suicide bomb attacks in recent months.

Maliki has staked much of his reelection hopes on being credited for a sharp fall in violence over the past two years.

The Ba'ath spotlight also unites Iraq's Shi'ite factions. That suits Iran, which wants fellow Shi'a to remain in charge of a neighbor with which it fought an eight-year war.