BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s electoral commission chief said Friday he expects more candidates to be blacklisted from March parliament elections because of suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime, an issue that has split the highest levels of Iraq’s government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government appeared Friday to be throwing support to the government-sanctioned body tasked with identifying hardcore supporters of Saddam’s outlawed Baath Party.
The development came a day after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani questioned the legitimacy of the legal authority of the same body, the Accountability and Justice Committee.
The additional names, which could be added to the list as early as Saturday, will include military men who carried forged documents and people with criminal records, commission chief Faraj al-Haidari told The Associated Press. The proposed ban has raised concerns among U.S. officials that such a move could undermine political stability and lead to an increase in violence ahead of the nationwide balloting March 7.
A leaked list with more than 500 names thought to be banned by the committee was printed in Iraqi newspapers on Thursday.
Al-Haidari declined to confirm whether that list was authentic or to discuss the number of candidates who so far could potentially be banned from running, but he said the names include members of Iraq’s various sects and ethnic groups. He says the number of Sunnis and Shiites is roughly equal.
“We informed the political parties of the names of those candidates that would be banned, and there are two choices for them: either replace the candidate or appeal to the court,” al-Haidari said.
Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites has been a priority for the U.S., which worries a flare-up between Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government and Sunnis who lost their political prominence following Saddam’s 2003 fall could destabilize the country.
Political tensions have been on the rise in recent months following accusations by al-Maliki that Baathists were to blame for a series of attacks since last summer that targeted government sites in downtown Baghdad. Hundreds were killed and wounded in the explosions.
The U.S. is concerned the blacklisting of candidates could undo Iraq’s security gains, possibly jeopardizing a timetable set by President Barack Obama to withdraw all but 50,000 troops by Aug. 31, 2010. The remaining U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Vice President Joe Biden was expected to visit Baghdad soon, underscoring U.S. concern about the rising tension.
However, Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraq’s government spokesman, said the banning of candidates is an internal matter.
“Their exclusion from the elections is a matter that is governed by the constitution and the laws regulating the work of the committee,” he said. “It is an internal affair that should be discussed by Iraqi political entities.”
Talabani, a Kurd, said Thursday he requested a ruling from the Higher Judicial Council on whether the vetting committee has the authority to ban candidates.
Al-Maliki, though, appeared Friday to be standing by the committee, telling Shiite tribal leaders during a meeting in southern Iraq that they should not support Baathists.
“Baathists are the ones who brought terrorism and created sectarian divisions among people,” al-Maliki said.
Associated Press Writers Chelsea J. Carter and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.