BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s president said Thursday he has asked the country’s highest legal body to determine the legitimacy of a committee that banned candidates with suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime from running in parliamentary elections due March 7.
President Jalal Talabani said the three-member presidential council he leads has sent a letter to the head of the Higher Judicial Council requesting a ruling after the committee banned 511 candidates in a move that has dealt a setback to national reconciliation efforts and threatens to cast a shadow over the vote.
“I myself am not satisfied with the banning decision,” said Talabani, a Kurd who has strongly backed reconciliation between Iraq’s main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups. He told reporters he was seeking a ruling on “whether this committee that issued the decision is legitimate or not.”
The government-sanctioned body behind the ban, the Accountability and Justice Committee, is tasked with weeding out from the government and security forces hardcore supporters of Saddam’s outlawed Baath party. Like the government, it is dominated by Shiite Muslims and its decisions are seen as biased against the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority that prospered under Saddam.
The committee’s forerunner, the de-Baathification Commission, was created by U.S. occupation authorities following the American-led, 2003 invasion of Iraq. That body faced Sunni charges that it acted with excessive zeal in purging Baathists, many of whom had joined the party to promote their careers or protect themselves from the regime.
Critics say the purges have robbed the civil service, academic institutions and the armed forces of some of their best and more experienced employees and are blamed for the chaos afflicting government departments to this day.
The current committee has not escaped criticism either. It is led by Ali al-Lami, a Shiite once detained by the U.S. military over a 2008 attack in a Shiite district of Baghdad. The attack targeted U.S. forces and was blamed on Shiite militiamen.
Al-Lami himself is running in the March election, a fact that has raised questions about the motive behind the ban. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to visit Baghdad to try to ease tensions over the ban.
Washington hopes the March election will be a significant step toward reconciliation between the majority Shiites and the once-dominant Sunni minority, and will help cement substantial but still tenuous security gains. American troops are expected to accelerate their withdrawal from Iraq soon after the election.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, a British security contractor accused of shooting two colleagues to death appeared briefly in court, where the judge accepted a defense request to have him examined by a medical and psychological committee, his lawyer said.
The contractor, Danny Fitzsimons, is accused of shooting two colleagues, a Briton and an Australian, during a fight in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone in the summer.
All three men were working for the British security firm ArmorGroup Iraq.
Fitzsimons’ defense team argue he is suffering from mental anguish caused by his military service in Iraq. Fitzsimons would be the first Westerner to face an Iraqi trial since a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect just over a year ago lifted immunity for foreign contractors.
The trial has been adjourned until Feb. 18, according to Fitzsimons’ attorney, Tariq Harb.
Violence remains a problem as the election nears. Gunmen killed an Iraqi army colonel near his house in the country’s north, marking the third deadly attack in a day on members of security forces in the area.
The victim’s cousin, Nafaa Khudir, identified the officer Thursday as Col. Salih Ahmed al-Ukaydi of the Iraqi Army’s 2nd division. He said the father of seven was headed on foot to visit a friend near Namrood, a mostly Sunni village about 18 miles (30 kilometers) south of Mosul, when he was shot by the unidentified gunmen around 10 p.m. Wednesday. Police at the operations command of Ninevah province, where the area is located, confirmed the attack. The shooting came hours after two off-duty policemen were killed in Mosul.