BAGHDAD // Iraq remains locked in a deep constitutional crisis that politicians and analysts warn could undo fragile political progress and plunge the country back into sectarian civil war ahead of impending national elections.
Calls were growing yesterday for the postponement of a controversial decision to ban more than 500 candidates from taking part in the March vote over their alleged connections to the Baath party, now outlawed in Iraq. Political figures expected to fare well in the polls, including Salahal Mutlaq, a Sunni who was evicted from the Baath Party more than 30 years ago, were on the election blacklist. He and the other banned candidates have until tomorrow to appeal against the decision. After that, it will be up to a panel of judges to rule on who is eligible to take part in the ballot, a tall order given the slow movement of Iraq's legal system and the March 7 election date.
Since Sunday the United States and United Nations have been pushing for a postponement of the blacklisting until after the elections, an effort to forestall what is threatening to turn into a complete political meltdown. Sunni groups, long the backbone of the insurgency, had in many cases turned away from violent resistance in favour of taking part in the political process. That trend now appears highly fragile, with Sunnis - and significant numbers of secular nationalists - convinced the blacklist deliberately targeted them, part of a ploy by pro-Iranian Shiites to retain their grip on power in Baghdad.
"This is a very dangerous moment in Iraq's history," said Ali Maqi, a member of parliament with the Tawafuq Front. "If the decision to eliminate so many nationalists and Sunnis from the elections goes ahead, there will be a lot of violence. "The only solution that might be acceptable to all sides at this time is to delay the decision. If that does not happen then the political process in Iraq may effectively collapse. If key figures and political blocs withdraw from the political process then it ceases to be a legitimate process at all."
Demands for a postponement were, however, far from universally supported. Powerful Shiite parties insisted the ban was fair and must be enforced, leaving little room for compromise and no indication of how the crisis will be resolved. Even the dire warnings of a return to civil war were brushed off by those backing the candidate ban. "The justice commission [which decided on banned candidates] made the right decision in not letting Baathists and extremists take part in the election," said Abdel Hadi al Hassani, an MP with the Dawa Party, led by the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. "Those calling for a delay [on the blacklist] are not in touch with the realities on the ground. There will be no violence as a result of this."
Mr al Hassani accused those opposed to the candidate ban of following a sectarian agenda, saying they wanted to restore Sunni power to a country with a Shiite majority. "Iraq has its constitution and what is happening is in accordance with the laws," he said. "We do not need outside intervention on this issue. This is a matter for Iraq. Excluding these candidates is a significant step forwards in Iraq's political process and will ensure that the next parliament is clean."
The constitutional crisis broke out on Friday with the announcement that Mr Mutlaq, a leading Sunni figure widely seen as playing a constructive role in the new democratic process, had been banned from standing in the election. His exclusion was decided by the accountability and justice committee, a parliamentary group charged with vetting candidates. It was subsequently revealed that 515 other prospective MP candidates were similarly banned from running over vaguely specified connections to Baathism or the regime of the deposed president, Saddam Hussein.
The controversial banning order came at a time when sectarian politics appeared to be on the wane, replaced by a more unified nationalistic dialogue. That dialogue now appears increasingly frayed, with growing references to sect and ethnic group, reminiscent of the bloody days of 2007's civil war. Fears among Sunnis that they are the victims of a conspiracy designed to undermine their election prospects appear to have more than a passing basis in fact. Ali Faysal al Lami, executive director of the accountability and justice committee behind the candidate bans, belongs to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and is himself standing as a candidate in the election.
The INC is part of the Iraqi National Alliance, a sectarian Shiite bloc with close ties to Iran, and is led by Ahmed Chalabi, a powerful advocate of de-Baathification once allied with the United States but who the US subsequently decided was in league with Iran. In effect, therefore, Mr al Lami and his allies - partisan Shiite electoral figures - were put in charge of deciding who should be allowed to take part in the election.
While the various coalitions taking part in the ballot had delayed announcing their candidate lists until the accountability and justice committee had delivered its rulings, the Iraqi National Alliance listed its final candidates a week ago, comfortably pre-empting the committee's decision adding to suspicions of foul play. Supporters of the candidate ban are adamant it is in accordance with the law. However, the various processes leading to the blacklist are of a dubious legal standing, and have highlighted various holes in the hastily drawn up Iraqi constitution.
The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), in charge of ensuring a fair ballot, last month asked the Iraqi Supreme Court for guidance on the banning of parties and candidates. The court said it had no jurisdiction on the issue, allowing IHEC - seen in many quarters here of being far from impartial - to make the decision itself. While the constitution outlaws the Baath Party it explicitly does not ban all former party members. Critics of the justice and accountability committee say it appears to have effectively banned some candidates on just such grounds.
Ordinary Iraqis, and certainly the United States, with its eyes on completing a quick troop withdrawal, had hoped the 2010 elections would usher in a new, less sectarian politics. Instead, it now appears that a repeat of the 2005 election is on the cards, with Sunnis disenfranchised - this time by a ban rather than a boycott and viewing violence as their best political option.
Mohammad al Anahi, a Sunni political analyst from Anbar province and former professor of politics at Baghdad University, said only an immediate delay on the candidate ban could prevent a slide back into open sectarian conflict. "Postponing the accountability and justice commission's decision, as proposed by the Americans, is now the only way to avoid a relapse into violence. We must avoid another civil war.
"If democracy in Iraq is real, candidates should be allowed to stand and the electorate will decide who it wants and who it does not want. Rather than banning parties it would be more sensible and in the country's interest to let them all stand. If Baathists or nationalists are as unpopular as those wanting them banned say, then they will lose." firstname.lastname@example.org