Sunni's Disqualification Threatens Iraq Reconciliation

A ruling last week disqualified one of the most important Sunni Arab politicians from running in the March elections, on charges that he is connected to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. The move could alienate Sunni Arab voters and threaten. The prime minister has made warnings of a Ba'athist resurgence a central theme of his campaign.

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Iraqi elections are coming up in March and while campaigning has not officially begun, political controversy has. Last week a parliamentary committee disqualified one of the most important Sunni Arab politicians from running. The committee charges he's connected to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Baghdad, that disqualification could threaten efforts at reconciliation.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Few people in Iraq have no opinion about Salih al-Mutlaq. He's a member of the parliament, a self-described Iraqi nationalist. His opponents call him an unreconstructed supporter of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. In Baghdad's al-Amil neighborhood, a Sunni Arab bastion, he's seen as a native son.

Mr. ABU SARMAD(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: For political and sectarian reasons, they don't want patriots like him in the government, says Abu Sarmad, who's loading furniture into a delivery truck. He draws a distinction between Mutlaq, who never left Iraq, and exiles, many of them Shiites, who returned with the American invasion.

Mr. SARMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The ballot box should be the judge of whether these people are true patriots says Abu Sarmad. Mutlaq is part of a coalition that may present a strong challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The disqualification is pure politics, says Rafi Al-Issawi, deputy prime minister of Iraq and a leading member of the same coalition as Mutlaq.

Mr. RAFI AL-ISSAWI (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): Talking about the Ba'athists started to be part of their campaigning and part of the play. Some two months ago, all of them started to talk about Ba'ath.

LAWRENCE: Issawi points out that most Iraqi professionals had to join the Ba'ath Party in order to work during Saddam's rule. He claims the disqualification is not legal. Cutting out Mutlaq now after four years in parliament makes no sense, says Issawi, especially during a time when the Iraqi government is promoting reconciliation and even setting free sectarian militants, some with blood on their hands.

Mr. AL-ISSAWI: We are talking about reconciliations, release of detainees. It is not logic to release people and to disqualify others who are participant. Salih al-Mutlaq is a member in the parliament. He's head of a bloc.

LAWRENCE: Anyway, Issawi says, no one realistically thinks that the Ba'ath Party is somehow going to return to Iraq.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But that's exactly what many Shiite politicians are warning about. Abbas al-Bayati, an MP aligned with Maliki recently went on such a tear against anyone, as he put it, who even smells like a Ba'athist, that the assembled Iraqi journalists told him to take it easy.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LAWRENCE: A chasm divides many Iraqis' views of the past. Some aligned with Salih al-Mutlaq, mostly Sunni Arabs, speak fondly of the Ba'ath system, stopping short only of praising Saddam Hussein. Among some Kurds and Shiite politicians there can be no common ground on that issue.

Mr. SADIQ AL-RIKABI (Senior Adviser, Prime Minister Maliki): What's the meaning of reconciliation? If reconciliation means Ba'ath return back, this is not acceptable.

LAWRENCE: Sadiq al-Rikabi is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Maliki. He stresses that the disqualification is a legal procedure and is now being reviewed by a panel of seven judges who will evaluate the evidence against Mutlaq. But the word Ba'ath means resurrection in Arabic. And Rikabi firmly believes that the Ba'athists are trying to come back to life in Iraq.

Mr. AL-RIKABI: Baath Party has a history of conspiracies, of mass graves, of chemical weapons. And the Iraqis do not forget this history. It is too new. It's too early for them to forget it.

LAWRENCE: Rikabi says he doesn't think Sunni Arabs will boycott the vote if Mutlaq is left out of the running. But small demonstrations have broken out in Sunni dominated cities like Mosul and Ramadi demanding that Mutlaq's name be put on the ballots. A decision by the review panel is expected soon and then there's a chance for an appeal, but that might leave very little time for campaigning before the March 7th elections.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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