Iraqi court disqualifies prominent Sunni candidates

By Nancy A. Youssef and Huda Ahmed
Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq - An Iraqi court has ruled that some of the most prominent Sunni Muslims who were elected to parliament last week won't be allowed to serve because officials suspect that they were high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Knight Ridder has obtained a copy of the court ruling, which has yet to be circulated to the public.

The ruling is likely to dampen Bush administration hopes that the election would bring more of the disaffected Sunni minority into Iraq's political process and undermine Sunni support for the insurgency. Instead, the decision is likely to stoke fears of widening sectarian divisions in a nation already in danger of descending into civil war.

Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral official of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, told Knight Ridder that he would honor the court's decision and that none of the accused Sunnis would appear on the final list of parliament members.

The commission is still counting ballots and said it would have the final list of winners sometime next month.

But preliminary results showed that some of the prominent Sunni politicians on the list had likely won seats. Among those who could lose their seats are: Adnan al-Janabi, the second-highest ranking member of the constitutional committee and a top candidate on U.S.-backed former prime minister Ayad Allawi's slate, and Rasem al-Awadi, a National Assembly member and also on Allawi's slate. Five members of the Iraqi Accord Front, the principal Sunni electoral slate, also were on the list.

Saleh Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, said that the ruling would agitate already frustrated Sunnis who are questioning the validity of the elections.

"The streets will tell you their reaction," Mutlaq said.

On Friday, thousands of Sunnis demonstrated in Baghdad, charging that the election was rigged in favor of the majority Shiite Muslims. The demonstration wasn't a reaction to the court decision because the Iraqi people hadn't learned of it.

"I came to protest against the fraud. There are some Shiites in my neighborhood who told me that they voted twice," said Omar al-Samaraee, a 25-year-old taxi driver who marched in the demonstration. "Should a government be formed based on the current results of the elections, then I think it will be illegitimate."

A month before the Dec. 15 election for a 275-member parliament, Iraq's de-Baathification committee submitted 185 names of suspected Baathists and told the electoral commission that they should not be allowed to run, said al-Lami.

One of the electoral commission rules states that "someone who had reached a certain membership level in the hierarchy of the dissolved Baath Party" cannot be a candidate unless he or she renounces that membership.

After the commission approached them, some slates voluntarily removed candidates, but the commission didn't force everyone to withdraw, al-Lami said. Instead, they allowed the candidates to run, saying that the committee did not present any evidence against the suspected Baathists.

The de-Baathification committee filed a complaint, and in a ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with it, saying that the electoral commission should have respected the committee's findings. The court called the commission's refusal to remove all the accused Baathists "mysterious, baseless and arbitrary."

"The de-Baathification committee is exclusively responsible for determining who can be a candidate," said Judge Amer Jawdat al-Naeb, the head of the three-judge panel that issued the ruling. "The decision of the (electoral commission) was unclear, and all their measures were wrong. They interfered in the work of the de-Baathification committee."

Al-Lami said the electoral commission had legal justification for refusing to remove the names, but didn't explain his position. "We will apply the law even though we are not convinced by it," he said.

The Baath Party ruled during Saddam's dictatorship. In 2003, L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator of Iraq's government until American officials returned sovereignty in June 2004, created a de-Baathification committee to purge high-ranking Baathists from the government.

One of the strongest proponents of purging Baathists was former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who the Pentagon had hoped would rise to power. Based on preliminary results, Chalabi is not likely to get a seat in the parliament.

The work of the committee has been highly controversial, with many Sunnis believing they were unfairly targeted because they'd joined the party as a necessary career move and hadn't committed any crimes. Others saw it as a means to persecute Sunnis.

At the same time, many Shiite Muslims are viscerally opposed to allowing former Baathists to join the political system.

The committee pushed upper-level Baathists, who were mostly Sunni Muslims, out of their jobs, in the process creating a core of angry, unemployed men who helped fuel the insurgency.

The Bush administration hoped that the election would bring Sunnis back into the political process, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has recently spoken about bringing lower-level Baathists into the government.

After initially supporting it, U.S. officials have lately criticized the de-Baathification committee's work, saying it didn't present evidence against accused Baathists or allow them to defend themselves.

Khalilzad said earlier this month there needed to be a balance between accountability and reconciliation.

"There have been abuses" by the committee, he said.

Even before Thursday's ruling, the prospects of creating a nationally accepted government were in danger. Many Sunni leaders have been calling for new elections in Baghdad province, alleging rampant fraud. Others have been calling for Sunnis to boycott the new government.

Both U.S. and Iraqi politicians had been celebrating Sunni participation in the December election, particularly after Sunnis boycotted last January's election for an interim Assembly. In the restive Sunni-dominated Anbar province, for example, only 2 percent of those registered voted last January; this month 55 percent participated.

Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Wail al Hafith and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.