Fate of 15 Iraqi political parties in balance

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s electoral commission will decide within days whether to ban 15 political parties from running in March polls because their leaders allegedly have links to former dictator Saddam Hussein, a spokesman said Saturday.

The move could threaten attempts to draw former supporters of the insurgency into the political process, a key plank in the U.S. strategy to stabilize the country as American troops withdraw.

Judge Qassim al-Aboudi, a spokesman for the Independent High Electoral Commission, said the body had received complaints over 15 political parties from a parliamentary committee dedicated to rooting out high-level supporters of the former regime.

The whole process of “de-Baathification,” named after the former ruling party, began shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, and has resulted in the firing of thousands of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, from the civil service and education professions.

However, the electoral body had not yet received its final formal report from the Accountability and Justice Committee, he said. It was expected imminently and the commission would make a decision within one or two days, he said.

After the commission publishes its ruling in Iraqi newspapers, candidates and parties will have three days to appeal the decision before a panel of three judges specially appointed to deal with electoral matters, he said.

Iraqi voters will be closely scrutinizing the list for signs of bias. The country is struggling to overcome years of sectarian violence pitting its minority Sunni population against the majority Shiites. The Sunni-dominated province of Anbar became a heartland of the al-Qaida linked insurgency after Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 polls.

But in the past three years, many Sunni militias have turned against the insurgents and are now working alongside the Shiite-dominated government, albeit in a strained and uneasy relationship. Analysts say the promise of political inclusion was a key part of persuading the militias to change sides.

Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq has already said he is on the list because his popularity threatens the Shiite dominated government.

He heads the second-largest bloc of Sunni seats in parliament and is building an alliance with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, and current Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi.

In a possible sign of the heightened tensions, gunmen attacked a member of the parliamentary committee as he drove his private car in eastern Baghdad, two police officials said. The man was wounded and his brother was killed. It was not immediately clear if the attack was related to the man’s work.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.