BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi MPs were gathering on Monday to debate a contentious decision to allow hundreds of candidates linked to executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to compete in next month’s elections.
Parliament was set to reconvene at 1:00 pm (1000 GMT) parliament speaker Iyad al-Samarrai said, after an emergency session was called off Sunday as MPs had not received a judicial report needed before they start their meeting.
The March 7 general election, the second in Iraq since Saddam’s ouster, is seen as a test of reconciliation between the Sunni minority dominant under the former dictator and the Shiite majority represented by the present government.
The volatile election environment was underscored late Sunday when a female candidate was gunned down in the restive northern city of Mosul, 350 kilometres (218 miles) north of Baghdad, a killing said to be politically motivated.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government last week branded a judicial panel’s decision to reinstate the candidates as “illegal,” and ordered that parliament be recalled.
Only 75 of the war-torn country’s 275 MPs attended the called-off session on Sunday, which coincided with demonstrations against the overturn of the ban in the Iraqi capital and the dominant Shiite cities of Basra and Najaf.
Several hundred protesters congregated outside Baghdad provincial government headquarters, carrying banners that read “No to the return of criminal Baathists,” and “No Baathists or Saddam.”
In Najaf, hundreds of tribal chiefs, religious leaders and citizens were similarly opposed.
“We don’t agree on the return of those who destroyed Iraq, killed innocent people and stole the wealth of the country, and we demand the government and parliament stop them,” said Haidar Daabel, a 35-year-old teacher.
The judges decided on Wednesday to allow the previously barred candidates to stand, saying they would examine their files after the polls and would eliminate them if they were found to be Baathists.
A statement from Maliki’s office on Saturday said leaders had “agreed on the need to resolve the issue of those barred (from the elections) according to the law.”
It was released after a meeting between Maliki, Supreme Court chief Madhat al-Hammud, parliament speaker Samarrai, deputy speaker Khaled al-Attiya and Deputy Prime Minister Roz Nuri Shawis.
The officials also decided “to ask the magistrates to issue a ruling based on the evidence they were given and to accomplish their duty before campaigning starts” on February 12, the statement said.
The blacklist was compiled last month by an integrity and accountability committee, sparking tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and its Sunni Arab former elite.
It includes — both Sunni and Shiite — suspected Baathists and alleged members of Saddam’s once deadly Fedayeen (Men of Sacrifice) militia and Mukhabarat intelligence division.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday she was “heartened” by the decision to reinstate the previously banned candidates and urged all parties to do nothing to undermine the legitimacy of elections.
The row over who can take part in the vote, however, has underscored the fragility of Iraq’s democracy, alarming Washington which sees the election as a crucial precursor to a complete military withdrawal by the end of 2011.
There are currently 107,000 US troops in Iraq, but the number is scheduled to fall to 50,000 by August when all American combat soldiers are due to pull out.