Sunni party vows to boycott Iraqi elections

A leading Sunni party announced Saturday that it will boycott Iraq’s upcoming elections because its leader was barred from participating, casting into doubt the inclusiveness of a vote that the U.S. military hopes will finally stabilize the country enough for its troops to go home.

The Iraqi National Dialogue Front, whose leader, Saleh Mutlak, has been forbidden to run because of his alleged expressions of sympathy for Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, cited what it called “Iranian interference” for its decision not to participate in the March 7 parliamentary elections.

Mutlak, a member of parliament, has emerged over the last five years as a forceful spokesman for Sunni Arabs disgruntled over the political process. His party won 11 seats in the last elections, enough to make a difference when it comes to choosing who will form the next government.

One of the U.S. military’s biggest fears is that Sunni Arabs who feel disenfranchised by the ban on candidates will refuse to accept the election results or recognize another Shiite-led government, plunging Iraq into renewed political turmoil and perhaps new violence.

Mutlak said the decision to boycott was triggered by comments made earlier in the week in Washington by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, alleging Iranian influence with the powerful Accountability and Justice Commission, which barred hundreds of candidates from the elections.

“This means the whole electoral process is now being conducted according to the Iranian style, which means they choose who they want to win and ban who they want,” Mutlak said in a telephone interview from the Jordanian capital, Amman. “So it’s a fixed election, and if the result is clear from the beginning, why should we give legitimacy to it?”

But Sunnis and many secularists in the Shiite community are so eager to overturn the dominance of the Shiite religious parties that have controlled Iraq’s government for five years that it is unclear whether Mutlak’s boycott call will have weight with many people.

The secular coalition to which Mutlak’s party belongs announced Saturday that it will contest the election and resume campaigning. The coalition, Iraqiya, had suspended its campaign a week earlier to protest the banning of the candidates.

The group said in a statement that it had concluded that the best response to the candidate ban “is wide participation in the coming elections in order to achieve an overwhelming victory and bring needed change.”

Two main Shiite blocs are vying for the votes of the Shiite majority, but they have an informal agreement to unite after the election to form the next government. Iran has been heavily involved in efforts to promote unity between the two blocs, helping to fuel Sunni perceptions that both groups represent Iranian interests.

Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.