(RFE/RL) -- Iraq's election commission announced today that most of the 500 candidates barred from the country's March parliamentary elections on charges of connections to the outlawed Ba'ath Party will be allowed to compete.
A senior official of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said on state television that an appeals panel "decided to allow the banned candidates to participate in the next election and decided to postpone looking into the case until after the election."
Hamdiyah al-Hussaini added that if they are then found to have links to the former ruling Ba'ath Party, "they will be eliminated" from taking seats as deputies.
The announcement did not make clear exactly how many of the banned candidates can run. The number of banned candidates has been variously reported as more than 500 and, in recent days, 450 people and parties.
The commission that issued the bans said the postponement decision reflects the short time remaining between now and the elections to decide each case.
"The commission has not made a decision to reinstate [the excluded candidates]," Ali Allami, the executive director of the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.
"What happened is that the appeals panel has issued a memo explaining that it cannot review all the objections in time and that as the election campaign is drawing nearer it is proposing to put off the exclusion decisions until their cases have been reviewed."
The ban caused a storm of controversy after it was implemented by Allami's commission, which is responsible for excluding significant former members of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from political life.
The commission began announcing in January the names of candidates and political parties it charged had Ba'ath connections. As the list grew to nearly 500 named entities, it amounted to banning some 7 percent of the total field of 6,500 candidates.
Salih al-Mutlaq, one of the candidates whose exclusion was reversed, told the Reuters news agency today that the United States and UN had been deceived by the original decision to ban the candidates.
Had that decision been allowed to stand he said, Iraq would have been destabilized politically and reconciliation among the country's competing groups would have been impossible.
"What happened today is considered a victory for justice in Iraq, a tremendous victory for the Iraqi judiciary, a tremendous victory for the Iraqis' will and for the will of the international community and those who look forward to democracy and peace," Mutlaq said.
"Many believed that the decision was made and would not be reviewed again, but we were assured that this decision would not be passed in any condition."
Ba'athists, Or Secularists?
Early outcry of the bans centered on charges that the government-appointed commission was targeting Sunni candidates by tarring them as Ba'athists. Critics said that appeared to serve the interests of the Shi'ite religious parties that dominate the government and parliament.
But later outcries shifted to suspicions that most of the 500 candidates were banned because they were secularists, whether Sunni or Shi'a. Again, critics charged that this served the interests of the dominant Shi'ite religious parties and, indirectly, that of Sunni religious parties as well.
The speculation about the names on the list, and any pattern to the ban, was complicated by the fact the commission never made the list public. News of who was banned emerged only when angry candidates appeared on television to protest their exclusion from the poll.
The firestorm over the bans alarmed Washington and the United Nations, both of which feared it could tarnish the legitimacy of the upcoming elections.
The elections are intended to be as inclusive of Iraq's various camps as possible in order to win a strong popular mandate for the new parliament. That, in turn, is to set the stage for the beginning of a U.S. troop pullout from the country planned for later this year.
At the height of the controversy, U.S. President Joe Biden flew to Iraq to lobby top leaders to resolve the problem. His January 23 visit left no doubt Washington gave the issue top priority and piled pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to end the crisis quickly.
Today's announcement enables all sides to agree that a solution was found in accordance with Iraq's legal process. Under Iraqi law, the candidates had the right to appeal the commission's decision to a seven-judge board.
The delaying of the board's consideration of the ban until after the election would be in accordance with a solution reportedly favored by Biden.
However, just such a solution appeared to be rejected by Iraq's President Jalal Talabani at the time of Biden's visit. Talabani said waiting until after the elections would mean that the people to be vetted would already have parliamentary immunity
How these issues were finally resolved will probably only become clear in the days ahead. The important news for the previously banned candidates today is that they can go ahead with plans to seek votes as campaigning officially starts on February 7.
Campaigning will continue in Iraq until 24 hours before election day on March 7.
with agency reports