BAGHDAD — An Iraqi appeals commission Wednesday lifted a ban on more than 570 mostly Sunni Muslim candidates in Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections, allowing them to run and possibly averting a sectarian showdown that had threatened to disrupt the elections.
Senior Sunni politicians had threatened to boycott the election after a controversial Shiite-led Accountability and Justice Commission banned more than 500 people for everything from membership in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to alleged links to Saddam’s intelligence agency.
The ban threatened to damage the credibility of the elections, and the United Nations and the Obama administration, which sent Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq to discuss the issue, both warned that it could trigger another round of sectarian violence as the administration begins to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
"I myself am not in favor of a boycott; there is nothing to gain from that, and everything to lose," said Saleh al Mutlaq, the leader of the second-largest Sunni party in Iraq, who was among hundreds of politicians banned from the elections in a controversial de-Baathification process.
"As a result of this (banning) maneuver, Sunnis will be marginalized in national elections yet again," al Mutlaq told The Christian Science Monitor. "Repercussions could be serious. If the people find they cannot work for the required change through political means, in their frustration they may turn to any other means at their disposal and create a situation of chaos once again."
Sectarian violence struck the columns of Shiite pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala again Wednesday. A car bomb in Twereej, southeast of Karbala, killed 21 pilgrims and injured another 128, according to Iraqi police. A booby-trapped bicycle targeting a police patrol injured another 22.
Wednesday's ruling sparked complaints from Shiites, with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa Party arguing that the seven-judge appeals commission could rule only on individual cases, but not order a blanket lifting of the ban.
"Many underestimate the importance the urgency of this crisis," said political analyst Haider al Musawi. "Saleh al Mutlaq and (banned fellow Sunni politician) Thafir al Ani represent 35 years of oppression to the Shiites, who are a majority. They were not very smart to make statements like, 'Baathists will have 40 seats in the next parliament,' and similar ones that scare people even more."
Even if the ruling stands, there's a catch, however: Those who were blacklisted will be subject to investigations after the elections for past ties to Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.
"They have the right to run in the election," said Hamdiyeh al Husseini of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) Wednesday. The appeals court would examine their files after the vote, and any links mean, "They will be eliminated," Agence France-Presse reported.
Minority Sunnis ruled Iraq under Saddam and his Baath Party for three decades, but the 2003 American invasion paved the way for domination by the 60 percent majority Shiites.
Sectarian and civil war surged across Iraq, especially after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006, and contributed to record death tolls of 3,000 per month and sectarian cleansing of many Baghdad neighborhoods.
Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq's first national election in 2005, but later concluded that the boycott had removed them from decision-making in Iraq. Despite the latest de-Baathification moves, in which the Accountability and Justice Commission rejected 572 candidates, other politicians say the latest Sunni threat was a political bluff.
"Now there is awareness and conviction that boycotting will not serve any purpose," said Dhia al Shakerchi, an independent Shiite parliamentarian.
"It has become evident to the people that the religious parties, whether Sunni or Shiite, were the womb in which sectarianism was conceived," said Shakerchi. "You can feel this in the way the political parties themselves have changed their platforms from Islamist to nationalistic."
"The secular trend is seeking to establish itself," said Shakerchi. "I believe that Iraqis who seek to bring this about will not be satisfied with being left out and absented from the political process and fair representation."
The election campaign officially kicks off on Feb. 7, but some large printing houses are already working three shifts a day to keep up with the demand for campaign materials from more than 6,000 candidates.
Some Iraqis are already pushing to get out the vote. Leaflets handed out on Wednesday in some Shiite districts were titled "Vote for your future." "Vote so that Baath will not rule again," instructs the leaflet. "No to terrorism."
On the back was the full printing of a Shiite prayer specific to a 40-day mourning ceremony that culminates on Friday, in which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to Karbala, the scene of the martyrdom in 680 of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered Shiite saints.
"Choose the path of al Hussein, not the path of al Baath," read the leaflet.
"Vote so that our mothers will not be bereaved (for the deaths of their children)."
Sunni militants have for years targeted large Shiite religious ceremonies in Iraq, but pilgrim Haider Judy Kathum said he wasn't deterred by Wednesday’s attacks.
"They strengthen our resolution," the father of one said in Karbala. "The explosions will never stop us, and those of us who are killed are martyrs. They are proud, as are their families."
(Peterson is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer; Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY