BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's government called on Thursday for a special session of parliament and branded as illegal an appeals panel decision to suspend a ban on candidates suspected of ties to an outlawed party until after an election.
Political wrangling is heating up ahead of the March 7 vote, seen as a crucial test for Iraq as it emerges from years of conflict unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion and tries to make peace between once dominant Sunnis and the Shi'ite majority.
The appeals panel said candidates barred by the Justice and Accountability Commission -- set up to ensure Saddam Hussein's Baath party did not return to public life -- could stand in the poll, but would still have a case to answer.
"Postponing implementing the law of the Justice and Accountability Commission until after the election is illegal and not constitutional," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement on his website.
It was unclear if the government could contest the panel's decision -- much of the process of banning the candidates has involved creative interpretations of the law and the legality of the commission that drew up the list is also in question.
Hamdiya al-Husseini, an official with the Independent High Electoral Commission, said the body had asked a high court to rule on whether it was required to abide by the panel's decision, and that the start of campaigning would be delayed.
"The (start of) election campaigning has been postponed from February 7 to February 12 to give time to the federal court to look into our inquiry," she told Reuters by telephone.
Officials said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had called on lawmakers to discuss the dispute in parliament, which would meet on Sunday in an extraordinary session.
The appellate panel's decision was rejected by Shi'ite parties, which along with minority Kurds bore the brunt of Baath party oppression under the rule of Sunni dictator Saddam.
"It is a betrayal of the people and the blood which poured in Saddam's era and after the occupation," cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in a statement on his website.
"It will be a stigma to the forehead of the miserable government," said Sadr, whose fiery anti-American message mobilized millions of poor Shi'ites after the invasion.
Some suspected U.S. interference. The panel's decision mirrored a proposal by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Iraq's "de-Baathification" rules were originally drawn up by U.S. administrators after Saddam was driven from power in 2003.
The candidate ban was seen by many Sunnis as a conspiracy by Shi'ite-led groups to keep them from a fair share of power even though the list has more Shi'ite names and a disproportionate number from smaller, cross-sectarian alliances.
Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is on the list, said the appellate body's decision was a "victory" for the Iraqi people.
Sunnis largely boycotted the last national vote in 2005, and their resentment fueled a bloody insurgency. Weary of the bloodshed, politicians have tried to be more cross-sectarian.
Amid the simmering row over candidates, attacks on Shi'ite pilgrims on a religious trek are adding to sectarian tensions, which have eased since their peak in 2006-7.
While leaders in Baghdad issued denunciations, some Shi'ite pilgrims in the holy city of Kerbala welcomed the move, despite a spate of attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist extremists.
"The Baath party died when Saddam died," said Ali Adel, a 48-year-old a civil servant. "We cannot implement Saddam's policy of excluding others. Politicians should learn a lesson from Saddam if they want to build Iraq in a correct way." (Additional reporting Muhanad Mohammed in Kerbala; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Michael Christie)