BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A ban on election candidates accused of links with Saddam Hussein’s Baath party threatens to drag Iraq into civil war, a former prime minister and head of a group seen as a strong contender in the polls said Monday.
Iyad Allawi, who leads the Iraqiya list into the March 7 vote, said the ban could trigger a resurgence in sectarian attacks, reversing a fall in violence in the last two years that has allowed U.S. forces to eye a 2011 withdrawal date and Iraq to sign major oil deals.
The ban on some 500 candidates with alleged ties to Saddam’s outlawed Sunni Muslim-led Baath party was imposed last month by a commission led by Shi’ite politicians, causing uproar in country only just emerging from years of sectarian bloodshed in which tens of thousands died.
“This will put Iraq in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war,” Allawi told Reuters in an interview.
“If the ban stays as is, haphazardly, with a blanket covering of people ... this will lead to severe sectarian tensions,” he added, speaking in English.
The Baath party brutally oppressed ethnic Kurds and Iraq’s Shi’ites, the majority Muslim sect in Iraq, and the Justice and Accountability Commission replaced the “de-Baathification” committee set up by U.S. administrators to root out Saddam loyalists after his overthrew by U.S. forces in 2003.
Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who said he survived an assassination attempt by Baath party agents for his opposition to its rule, said he supported punishment of party members proven to have committed crimes against the Iraqi people.
But he said the candidate ban before the election, seen as crucial to solidifying Iraq’s young democracy and settling disputes over territory and vast oil reserves, was indiscriminate and a ploy to eliminate election rivals and detract from the current government’s failures.
“Frankly what I see is the gross failure of the government in providing services, in providing security, in reducing unemployment and having a clear cut foreign policy...to cover these failures they are attacking others,” Allawi said.
The Iraqiya list’s general secretary, Saleh al-Mutlaq, is one of the candidates included in the ban, and Allawi said there were efforts to try and include Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, another senior Iraqiya member, in the list.
The men are two of the most prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq, and their exclusion from the polls would fan Sunni complaints of marginalization by Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders.
Sunnis boycotted Iraq’s 2005 national elections, and disenfranchised Sunnis fueled the bloody insurgency that raged in subsequent years. Their participation in upcoming polls is viewed as crucial if Iraq’s shaky stability is to hold.
The candidate ban affects mostly Shi’ites. But it includes a disproportionate number from smaller cross-sectarian alliances, who are seen as doing well in the upcoming polls because many Iraqis say they are tired of years of violence and corruption since sect-based Islamists came to power after Saddam’s fall.
The secular Iraqiya list includes Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Election lists dominated by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and another powerful Shi’ite group the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council are trying to rebrand themselves as nationalists and are toning down religious rhetoric.
Allawi said his list was meeting to decide its next move, and called for proof against banned candidates.
An appeals panel is going through 177 appeals. But Allawi demanded the banned candidates be allowed to appeal in person, not just through a review of their candidacy papers.
Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Michael Christie and Angus MacSwan
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