BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraq’s electoral commission on Thursday barred 500 candidates from running in March’s parliamentary election, including a prominent Sunni lawmaker, in a decision that is sure to deepen Iraq’s sectarian divides.
Hamdia al-Hussaini, a commissioner on the Independent High Electoral Commission, said the commission made the decision after receiving the list from a parliament committee that vets candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.
The decision to bar the candidates — most of whom are believed to be Sunni — potentially threatens the country’s fragile security because it risks leaving Sunni voters feeling targeted and disenfranchised. The Sunni boycott in a January 2005 election is considered one of the key factors that deepened the insurgency.
The candidates have three days to appeal, al-Hussaini said.
Among those barred is prominent Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, a strident critic of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Mutlaq has already said he would appeal any ruling against him.
Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, speaking before the decision was announced Thursday, described the effort to bar the candidates as intimidation.
Allawi and al-Mutlaq are political allies in the Iraqi National Movement, a coalition challenging al-Maliki in the vote.
“This is a process of severe intimidation and threats,” Allawi said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s clear that they want to get rid of their opponents.”
Allawi, a fierce critic of al-Maliki, called on the prime minister to put a stop to what he described as the parliament committee’s intimidation.
“This is where he shoulders responsibility,” the former prime minister said. “His speeches are encouraging these guys.”
A spokesman for the prime minister was not immediately available for comment.
The de-Baathification policy was created under the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the country after the 2003 invasion and stripped senior Baathists of their jobs. In 2008, the policy was relaxed and thousands of former Baathists who were not involved in past crimes were allowed to take government jobs.
But as the March 7 election approaches, former Baathists — a term often perceived as being aimed at all Sunni Arabs — have once again been singled out, especially by al-Maliki, who has blamed a string of high-profile bombings last year on Baathists.
Allawi said the Debathification process designed to root out supporters of Saddam’s ousted regime is being used for political gain in the run-up to the election.
Allawi, who was once a member of Saddam’s Baath party, became the first postwar prime minister in 2004 at the head of an interim government. A member of a prominent Shiite merchant family, Allawi broke with the Baathists in the mid-1970s. He later survived an assassination attempt widely believed to have been ordered by Saddam and then went on to create the Iraqi National Accord, an opposition group dedicated to overthrowing Saddam’s government.
His backing of the U.S. offensives to take back the Sunni city of Fallujah in Anbar province in 2004 and against the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf won him animosity across the Iraqi religious spectrum. But some Iraqis see him as one of the few politicians able to lead the country away from the religious parties that have dominated politics here for the last four years.
Allawi warned that as the U.S. prepares to draw down its forces from the country, Iraq has not made the necessary political reforms to foster reconciliation between the country’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
“We are being thrown back into the sectarian divide in the country,” Allawi said.