MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq. He's trying to mediate a political crisis there. Iraq has elections coming up in March. A parliamentary committee disqualified more than 500 candidates because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. Now, charges of political manipulation are casting doubt on the election's credibility. Vice President Biden is pushing for a compromise that will allow a successful election and also allows U.S. soldiers to begin a major draw down.
NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Baghdad.
QUIL LAWRENCE: The list of barred candidates drafted by the Accountability and Justice Committee began as rumor. At first only 17 names leaked to the public, including prominent Sunni Arabs. Concerns spread across Sunni Iraq that Shiites in government were trying to cut them out of the race. The full list of banned candidates trickled out in the local press this week in a confusing array of full family names that even Iraqis have trouble deciphering.
With details still emerging, high-level Iraqi officials have tried to assure the public that this is not a crisis and not an attack on Sunnis. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): It will not be a main crisis, but it is a little bit exaggerated. There are also Sunni Arabs participating in the election.
LAWRENCE: Talabani has asked the Iraq Supreme Court to rule on whether the committee's actions are even legal. The original de-Baathification committee was created in 2003 by the American occupational authority. Its goal was to separate the real marshals of Saddam Hussein's repressive state from the hundreds of thousands who had joined the party under duress.
The committee was renamed two years ago, but parliament never got around to selecting new officers. So the chairman stayed in place: Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi is a former CIA asset and a primary source of the faulty information that led the Bush administration to invade Iraq.
Nowadays he's seen to be closer to America's main rival in the region: Iran. According to U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, Iran may be involved in creating this latest crisis. But Hill says the full list includes Shiites as well as Sunnis.
Ambassador CHRIS HILL (Iraq): The list is not just a list of Sunnis, it's a list of people who are alleged to have been involved with the Baath party. And so there are both Shiite and Sunni on the list. The problem will be if there's not adequate transparency, certainly there are some Sunni groups who feel this may be targeted at them.
LAWRENCE: That lack of transparency has led to uncertainty and unease among Iraqi citizens and politicians alike. Omar Mashhadani is a Sunni politician. He says that the de-Baathification committee is abusing its power.
Mr. OMAR MASHHADANI (Sunni politician, Iraq): I believe that it is in their authority, but they use it in political way in very crucial time just very few weeks before the election. I don't believe that they are honest to deal with this.
LAWRENCE: Mashhadani claims that Iran is pushing the committee to cut out certain politicians specifically Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading member of a secular coalition that has presented a challenge to the two largest Shiite parties. On the other hand, he believes the Americans are overreacting in their scramble to make sure the Iraqi elections go forward.
Mr. MASHHADANI: The American side now is pushing for getting al-Mutlak back. And that's obvious. They are doing that very sharply to get him back into the election in any legal or illegal way.
LAWRENCE: Ambassador Hill categorically denied pushing for anything but a credible election. But the U.S. is walking a fine line between offering advice and giving the perception of meddling. Washington sent Vice President Biden to Baghdad in hopes of a middle path.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tentatively endorsed the list of disqualifications, but has urged that the public wait for an appeals process to be completed. So far the net result may be more disillusionment with politics.
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LAWRENCE: Just outside the gates of the parliament at Baghdad's famous Haider Double falafel restaurant, Ali Ahmad, a 21-year-old waiter says, it's hard to trust anyone in politics.
Mr. ALI AHMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: I'm sure the elections will go ahead, he says, but how do we tell the honorable people from the thieves and liars?
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.
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