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Iraq Panel Urges Vote Ban For Sunni Leader, Parties

Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Fifteen political parties, including that of a prominent Sunni leader, should be barred from Iraq's March 7 election because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath Party, a panel has found.

The panel's recommendation, which was not final and whose legitimacy was immediately disputed, could hamper attempts to unify the fractious nation after years of sectarian violence as it heads toward the key parliamentary vote Washington hopes will bring stability before its troop withdrawal.

The Justice and Accountability Commission, an independent body that aims in part to ensure the Baath party does not return to public life, said on January 7 that Salih al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front should not be allowed to participate in the vote.

The recommendation of the commission, which replaced Iraq's de-Baathification Committee, will be referred to the electoral commission, IHEC, for a decision, and Iraq's courts will have the final say.

"The committee asked IHEC to ban 15 parties from participating, including the National Dialogue Front...because its leaders and its founders come under the process of de-Ba'athification," said Ali al-Lami, a commission official. Al-Mutlaq, who is popular among the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam, condemned the edict as politically motivated and said it would be appealed in the federal courts.

"It is an absurdity committed by the de-Ba'athification committee," al-Mutlaq told Reuters. "It proves again that there is no real basis for any democratic process in Iraq."

Thousands of Ba'athists were purged from Iraq's government after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's entrenched regime in 2003. Washington ultimately admitted "de-Ba'athification" went too far and backed efforts toward reconciliation among majority Shi'ites and the minority Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam.

After the sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands after the U.S. invasion, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to allow many former Ba'athists back into government even as he promises to crush attempts to revive it as a political force.

The ongoing row between parliament and the government over implementation of a law rehiring some Ba'athists, and over the leadership of the committee that issued the ruling on al-Mutlaq, reveals the sensitivity of the subject.

The immediate impact of the edict on al-Mutlaq, who has called al-Maliki's election message of nationalism a ploy, was unclear.

Baha al-Araji, a Shi'ite lawmaker and head of parliament's legal committee, said the pronouncement was invalid because the committee's leadership had not yet been approved by parliament.

"The aggrieved parties have the right to go to the appeal court," he said. "Besides, this decision is deficient because the board of the Justice and Accountability Commission has not been formed yet."

Al-Mutlaq dismissed allegations he had spread Ba'athist ideas.

"If defending Iraq and talking against occupation is considered spreading ideas about the Ba'ath Party, they are right," al-Mutlak said. "Other than this, I never said anything on behalf of any party but the front I belong to."

"I will appeal this decision to the federal court and we will see if there is real justice in Iraq, or not."