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Iraqi Election Bans Raise Fears Of Sectarianism, Renewed Violence

Protesters hold a poster depicting a montage of two faces, Sunni legislator Dhafer al-Ani and Saddam Hussein, and reads below: "Two faces of the same coin."
(RFE/RL) -- Concerns are growing in Iraq that an election blacklist crafted by a Shi'a-led panel is exacerbating tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs -- threatening prospects for reconciliation.

A prominent Sunni coalition has suspended campaigning for the March 7 parliamentary elections as Iraq's election commission prepares a final list of eligible candidates -- a list of 6,000 names that would reflect the ban against candidates with alleged links to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

The Al-Iraqiyah coalition has called for an urgent session of parliament to debate the bans imposed by Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission.

The panel, headed by Shi'ite official Ahmad Chalabi, is widely seen to be preventing Sunni leaders from running in the March 7 elections -- despite the fact that many Shi'a also were blacklisted for alleged ties with the outlawed Ba'ath Party.

Maysun al-Damaloji, a member of the Al-Iraqiyah coalition, said an urgent session of parliament should assess some specific cases in which the bans were imposed.

"To confirm the seriousness of Al-Iraqiyah, it has decided to suspend its election campaign immediately, waiting for the results of the meeting that we have called for earlier," she said.

Damaloji also said Al-Iraqiyah is considering a boycott of the parliamentary elections if its complaints are not addressed -- a move that could throw the vote into turmoil.

Appeals Rejected

On February 14, Chalabi's de-Ba'athification panel announced that only 67 out of more than 500 banned candidates have been cleared to run after the completion of an appeals process.

Some 300 candidates have either been replaced by their parties or have simply dropped out of the running without challenging the ban. Panel attorney Abdul Rihman Sabri said that out of 177 who appealed the ban, 26 were successful.

Meanwhile, a seven-judge panel appointed by Iraq's Supreme Court is continuing to examine a few of the appeals.

Among those whose appeals were rejected are two of the most prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq: Salih al-Mutlaq and Dhafer al-Ani. Both are fierce critics of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has led the push for de-Ba'athification.

Dozens of candidates from Multaq's Iraqi National Movement are also banned, along with about 70 members of Al-Iraqiyah.

Sectarian Fears

U.S. officials say they worry that escalating tensions over the ban could lead to increased sectarian violence across the country -- setting back security gains ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of August.

Despite the overall decline in violence in Iraq since a 2008 troop surge and the bolstering of Iraqi security forces, there has recently been a fresh wave of violence in Baghdad targeting security forces and political figures.

Some ordinary Iraqis say they are concerned about the broader impact that a ban against many leading Sunni figures could have on the security situation.

One 30-year-old Sunni woman in Baghdad told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that she and other Sunnis are afraid the ban will lead to renewed violence.

"At least he haven't been hearing bombs and explosions, or seeing abductions, like we did before," the woman said. "When they decided to impose this ban, didn't they consider how this could bring a return of violence and sectarianism?"

Indeed, five political parties in Baghdad have been targeted by bombings since the panel announced the rejection of the Sunni appeals. Those attacks targeted the offices of three Sunni-dominated parties that have candidates on the blacklist, as well as two groups that were unaffected by the bans.

Some residents of Baghdad's northeastern Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City say the panel's ban is justified because of the brutal oppression against the Shi'ite majority and Kurds under Saddam Hussein.

One resident of Sadr City, a Shi'a in his mid-20s, told Radio Free Iraq that many Iraqis fear that former Ba'athists would be elected if they are allowed to run for parliament.

"It's good that they removed the Ba'athists from the election. I don't want them involved in the government nor in the election," he said. "During the Saddam era, they destroyed us. We don't want them any more."

Still, both Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis have expressed skepticism about the ban -- saying they think it is a government ploy to distract attention from official corruption and its inability to provide security or basic services to the country.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report