Baghdad // The withdrawal of a leading candidate and his party from Iraq's election seems unlikely to prompt a wide-scale boycott by secularists or Sunnis, with even close political allies insisting they will still take part in the March 7 poll.
Saleh al Mutlaq, a senior member of parliament, was barred from standing for parliament by a controversial de-Baathification committee. In response, on Saturday he pulled his party out of the elections. The National Dialogue Front was contesting the election as part of the Iraqiyya list, led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi. In withdrawing from the election, Mr al Mutlaq invited other parties to follow his example, to protest against the way in which scores of candidates were blacklisted over alleged connections to the outlawed Baath Party, in a process that critics say was of dubious legal standing.
That call prompted concerns of a wider boycott, mirroring that of 2005, when large numbers of Sunnis refused to take part in a national election, leaving them without representation in government for four years. It was a disenfranchisement that fuelled the insurgency. A repeat does not seem on the cards this year, however, with even supporters of Mr al Mutlaq saying participation was essential. "We will take part in the election; we must, otherwise we will lose our ability to influence the future of Iraq," said Mohammad Tammeem, an MP with the Hiwar front, the party once led by Mr al Mutlaq. Mr Tammeem is contesting a seat in Kirkuk, a city holding its first vote in five years because earlier provincial elections were postponed after failures to agree on power-sharing formulas between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans. Kirkuk has been under de facto Kurdish control since then, to the dismay of Arab nationalists.
"The people here, the Arab residents, want us to take part, we are responding to their request. If we do not, Kirkuk will be given to the Kurdish and they want to annex it to their region. We must take part in the election for the sake of Kirkuk's identity." Mr al Mutlaq himself seemed conflicted about the relative merits of a boycott. Before withdrawing his party he had warned against sitting out the election, saying the experience of 2005 had not served the cause of nationalists.
Concerns that the pullout of a major group will result in increased violence by Mr al Mutlaq's supporters were also unfounded, Mr Tammeem said. "Salah [al Mutlaq] will continue the way of peaceful politics to further the cause of Iraqi nationalists; there is no question that he wants to undermine the political process and there will be no armed uprising as a result of this." Despite losing a party from his secular Iraqiyya alliance, Mr Allawi, who met senior Saudi officials in Riyadh on Saturday, is continuing his campaign.
Supporters of Iraqiyya were adamant a boycott would fail. "It was a huge mistake to boycott the past elections and if we do that again, it will be another mistake," said Ayman Ali, an engineer in Mosul who plans to vote for Mr Allawi's list. "A boycott will open the door to Iran and will hand control over Iraq to Tehran. This election is our best hope for preventing that." Sunnis and secular nationalists saw the candidate blacklisting as orchestrated by pro-Iranian Iraqis, in an attempt to ensure the continued political dominance of sectarian Shiite groups.
That view was supported by US officials, with the ambassador, Christopher Hill, and Gen Ray Odierno, the head of the US military in Iraq, naming Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al Lami, two key figures on the de-Baathificaion committee, as being under Iranian influence. Both Mr Chalabi and Mr al Lami have rejected the suggestion. In making its withdrawal announcement, Mr al Mutlaq's party cited the US officials' comments, saying that it was impossible to take part in an election that was being manipulated by Iran.
"The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda - the invitation is open to other political blocs to follow suit," it said. Although there does not appear to be any groundswell for a boycott, concerns remain that the blacklisting affair and Mr al Mutlaq's pullout has already tarnished the election and the legitimacy of the next government. And there remain concerns that violence will increase if Mr al Mutlaq's Sunni supporters believe the government has been hijacked by Iran.
"There are reasons to believe that after Mutlaq's decision some groups will want to fight, although I do not think they have enough power to be a threat to the government," said Ammar Allawi, an independent Iraqi political analyst. "The prime minister [Nouri al Maliki] has brought some of the strongest units in the Iraqi forces under his direct command and he will want to show that he can keep the country secure."