BAGHDAD — Iraqi election authorities on Monday announced the disqualification of two winning parliamentary candidates because of alleged Baathist ties as the U.S. said publicly for the first time that it was concerned about delays in forming a new Iraqi government.
"We have an election that took place on March 7. We are now approaching the two-month period (of waiting for final results) and we are concerned that the process is lagging," Ambassador Chris Hill said Monday in the first public indication of concern by the U.S. government over elections seen as crucial to stability.
"We have not gone on to government formation as of yet and we share the concern of those who believe that its time that the politicians got down to business and started forming a government," he said at a briefing for Western journalists.
Iraq election officials on Monday said they'd been instructed by a review panel that it was upholding a decision by the Justice and Accountability commission that 52 candidates in the parliamentary elections had been deemed ineligible to have run, including at least one Sunni Muslim candidate belonging to the Iraqiya coalition, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's major challenger.
"The decision is to disqualify 52 candidates, set aside all the votes they won in the elections and to rule out the winning candidates," said Ali Faisal al Lami, executive director of the controversial Justice and Accountability Commission.
He said the disqualified candidates include two who won parliamentary seats in the March 7 vote. Of the disqualified candidates, 22 of the 52 are from the Iraqiya list led by secular Shiite political leader Ayad Allawi, which has a narrow lead over Maliki's party. One of the winning politicians, Ibrahim al Mutlak, is the brother of prominent Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlak, who was disqualified for alleged Baathist ties by the commission before the vote. The disqualification at the time threatened to derail the election process, which for the first time included substantial Sunni representation.
It's unclear yet whether the disqualification of 52 candidates would change the number of seats held by the major political coalitions.
The four major political blocs that have split the 325 parliamentary seats among them have been waiting for final results to be certified before starting serious negotiations on forming a coalition government. Most of those negotiations are expected to be over who will be prime minister or retain leading cabinet positions. Maliki is seen to be desperate to narrow the two-seat gap between his coalition and former interim Prime Minister Allawi's' Iraqiya list.
"I want to stress that what is needed to run this country is 163 seats not 91 or 89 but 163 and I think an inordinate amount of time is being spent on a first phase that will not determine who rules this country in the next four years," said Hill.
Iraqiya politicians said this latest ruling, and last week's decision to hold a recount of more than 20 percent of the votes after Maliki alleged fraud, was endangering Iraq's fledgling democracy. The U.N., which advised on the process, has said it saw no evidence of widespread fraud.
"We consider the decision 1/8to disqualify 52 candidates3/8 a clear politicizing of the judiciary. It's impossible to protect democracy without an independent judicial system," said Mohammad Tawfiq from the Iraqiya list. "Democracy is in danger and politicizing the judiciary pushes the country towards dictatorship."
In an indication of the depth of distrust between election officials and the controversial commission set up to screen Baathists, Lami blamed the delay on the electoral commission not acting to bar the candidates once they were banned.
"They are liars," he said, referring to the announcement only on Monday that the 52 candidates couldn't run for office. "They sent us the names of the candidates to check on March 3 and we responded the same day."
Under the law, the banned candidates still have a month to appeal the ruling. The Justice and Accountability has come under fire because it's headed by two Shiite politicians who themselves were running for parliament. Most of the banned candidates banned by the commission are secular or Sunni. The commission was also criticized for how it handled the allegations of Baathist ties and because the right of appeal was considered insufficient.
The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) confirmed the disqualification of the candidates.
"We haven't yet received the judicial decision but we knew about it through our legal representative at the court that it will require the electoral commission to disqualify 52 candidates and the votes they won. Among those are one or two winning members," said IHEC commissioner Ayad al Kinani.
He said the electoral commission will delete those votes and then lower the number of votes that a candidate would have needed to win in each of the provinces where candidates were disallowed.
IHEC has been scrambling to comply with a directive by an appeals court for a recount of all ballots in the Baghdad area - more than 20 percent of the national total. Officials who had seen the ruling said it appeared to have been based on 'the possibility' rather than evidence that there had been fraud. The recount will delay certifying the results for at least another 10 days once it begins.
Asked whether the United States viewed the election decisions as politically motivated, Hill said the judiciary was being "tested" by political pressure and indicated it may be failing the test.
"I would see this as a close election that has caused great strain and great challenges to all of Iraq's nascent democratic institutions, and I would say the court system has not been immune to this challenge," he said.
"The worry is that this is a country that has an economy that is barely just getting itself off the ground. This is a country that has been beset by some of the worst violence that anyone has ever seen in peacetime. This is a country that clearly needs to move ahead," Hill added. "I think anytime (Iraq) goes through those long transitional periods where you don't even have a parliament in session there are reasons to be concerned about whether they are keeping up the pace."
(McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad)