RAMADI, Iraq — A suicide car bomber killed at least 11 people Thursday in an apparent election-related attack near provincial government buildings, while Iraqi politicians stepped back from a raging dispute over banned candidates that has raised warnings of a new civil war.
Iraqi officials said a suicide bomber detonated near a checkpoint outside the Al Anbar governorate buildings in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. At least 22 others were wounded in the attack — the third against the government center in the provincial capital since October.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, which still retains cells in its former stronghold of Anbar Province, has taken credit for a series of suicide attacks since August and has publicly threatened to derail the March 7 elections.
This election, the first since 2003 in a fully sovereign Iraq, is seen as crucial to Iraqi stability. Anbar, with its majority Sunni population, largely boycotted the 2005 elections in protest against a Shiite-dominated, U.S.-backed process.
The most recent political crisis had been sparked by a ban on more than 500 candidates accused of ties to Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission.
Twenty-eight candidates have since been cleared to run, but one of the most prominent Sunni candidates to remain on the banned list, Saleh al-Mutlaq, has called for a boycott of the vote if the rulings stand. Mutlaq, who quit the Baath Party in the 1970s but has said he will not denounce the banned organization, has been a member of parliament for the last four years.
Al-Iraqiya, the coalition that includes Mutlaq's party, suspended campaigning for three days and called for an emergency session of parliament.
But after agreeing on Wednesday to a code of conduct for the election, which includes not using security forces for political purposes and renouncing sectarian themes, the major political parties appear to have grudgingly agreed to move on with the campaign.
ODIERNO: AL-LAMI AND CHALABI 'INFLUENCED BY IRAN'
Although a significant number of Shiites as well as Sunnis have been barred from running because of alleged Baathist ties, the move has been seen as furthering a Shiite agenda because the heads of the commission are prominent Shiite members of parliament. Adding fuel to the controversy over the ban, the top U.S. general in Iraq, Ray Odierno, and other U.S. officials, have accused the two men, Ahmed Chalibi, and Ali Faisel al-Lami of ties to Iran.
"This is an attack on one of the basics of democracy in Iraq," says Faleh Hassan Shenshel, who is head of the accountability and justice committee in parliament and a member of the Sadr bloc. "I think the American administration is making a big mistake in interfering in this issue."
Odierno said at a conference on Tuesday at the Army and Navy Club in Washington that al-Lami was arrested in 2008 after the U.S. received "intelligence" that indicated he was involved in organizing an attack on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City in concert with the movement of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Lami was released in August 2009, Odierno said, because of insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Al-Lami "has been involved in very nefarious activities in Iraq for some time," Odierno said. "It is disappointing that somebody like him was in fact put in charge or has been able to run this commission inside of Iraq." Odierno added that both al-Lami and Chalabi are "clearly are influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that" and "we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election."
Maysoon al-Damluji, a candidate with Al Iraqiya, says she believes the sectarian fervor whipped up by the disqualifications could again lead Iraqis to take up arms to protect themselves.
"They use the Baathists as an ogre to scare people, especially in places like Baghdad," she says of the two main Shiite-dominated parties. "This is a competition that started about who hates Baathists more ... and then the government took advantage of it to shift the focus from lack of services, lack of job opportunities, and deteriorating security to debaathification."
Since the campaign opened last week, some television stations funded by Shiite religious parties, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's Dawa party, have aired ads showing Saddam-era atrocities against Shiites after the 1991 Gulf War.
"The militias never disappeared," says Saad Eskander, an analyst who is head of Iraq's National Library. "The Shiites are trying to have a clear majority to control the three branches of government - executive, legislative and the judiciary - the Sunnis are trying to have enough seats to hinder the work of the Shiites and the Kurds are waiting to see what will happen."
"It's up to both sides - if the Sunnis are not happy with the results or the Shiites are not happy with the result all of this might lead to a chaotic situation and result in civil war," he says.
WHAT ABOUT JOBS?
The crisis over the banned candidates has overshadowed what voters say are their real concerns - restoring public services such as electricity, improving security, and creating jobs to ease an unemployment rate estimated at 50 percent in some areas.
Provincial elections last year sent a strong message to the traditional religious parties who lost ground among voters who widely felt they could not deliver basic services or crack down on corruption.
Secular as well as Sunni parties see themselves as the main target of the ban. Iraqi officials have blamed Baathists for everything from planning huge suicide attacks carried out against government buildings to plotting a military coup.
Calls for a Sunni boycott have eased, with some polls showing that the ban on Sunni candidates could spur more Sunnis to vote. One candidate, in Mosul, has already been assassinated and security concerns have contributed to a quiet campaign.
At the scene of the governorate bombing in Ramadi on Thursday, Mohammad Barakat, unemployed and 18, was knocked down by the blast.
"This is a struggle between the political parties, and I'm sure they had a hand in this explosion," he says. "We will go to the polls and change everything.... We know there will be more explosions aimed at obstructing the elections to deprive the Sunnis from gaining more seats."
(Special correspondent Jamal Naji contributed reporting.)