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Prominent Iraqi Sunni Ends Party's Poll Boycott

Salih al-Mutlaq (file photo)
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- The party of a prominent Sunni Muslim politician banned from taking part in Iraq's March election has decided not to boycott the poll, easing fears that other Sunni groups would also stay away.

Salih al-Mutlaq said his National Dialogue Front party would take part in the March 7 vote as part of the Al-Iraqiyah election coalition, a cross-sectarian group expected to pose a challenge to Iraq's established Shi'ite Islamist parties.

His Sunni party said last week it would boycott the vote and urged others to do so too in protest at a ban on candidates with alleged ties to former dictator Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Mutlaq is among the most prominent of the banned candidates.

"There is great pressure from the Iraqi public which wants us to take part and we have great support," Mutlaq said.

A Sunni boycott of the poll would have threatened the legitimacy of the election and scotched hopes that greater Sunni participation in Iraqi politics would help reduce support for Sunni Islamist insurgent groups like Al-Qaeda.

A panel led by Shi'ite lawmakers last month banned more than 400 candidates accused of links to the Ba'ath Party, which brutally oppressed Iraq's majority Shi'a and Kurds.

Although the ban affected more Shi'ite candidates, prominent Sunnis and Shi'a working with them to form cross-sectarian alliances were hit hard, fanning Sunni accusations of Shi'ite attempts to marginalize them ahead of the election.

Iraq has only just emerged from years of sectarian bloodshed, and the country's minority Sunni Arabs hope the vote will give them a greater say in Iraqi politics.

"We don't want to prevent Iraqis from expressing their opinion, but at the same time, we have reservations about this election and its results even now, and we consider it lacking in legitimacy," Mutlaq told reporters at a news conference.

He declined to say how many candidates his party brings to the Al-Iraqiyah election coalition, which is headed by secular Shi'ite former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The March election is Iraq's second full national vote since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Hussein, and is seen as crucial in solidifying Iraq's young democracy.

Allawi and Mutlaq said the vote was being rigged and their candidates had been intimidated, arrested and attacked.