Iraq president challenges ban on 511 candidates


Iraq’s president has asked the country’s Supreme Court to rule on the legality of a ban on hundreds of candidates in the upcoming elections, offering the first official challenge to a decision that could undermine the legitimacy of the poll.

President Jalal Talabani said Thursday that he was “personally not happy” with the ban on mostly secular candidates, and questioned the authority of the committee that ordered it because its composition had not been approved by the parliament.

His comments at a news conference offered the first hint of a possible way out of a dispute that has threatened to derail the March 7 elections and polarized the country along sectarian lines.

Although the final list of 511 banned candidates reveals that at least as many Shiite Muslims as Sunni Muslims are affected, the vast majority belong to secular or mostly Sunni parties that are challenging the Shiite religious groups currently controlling the government. The candidates have been barred under the terms of the Iraqi Constitution because of their association with the former Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Talabani noted that the constitution expressly forbids members of “the Saddamist Baath” from holding office. But, he said, ordinary Baath Party members who were not Hussein loyalists should not be affected.

“Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to join the Baath Party in order to get on in life, and this must not be held against them,” said the president, who is an ethnic Kurd, a community persecuted under Hussein.

Most government officials have expressed support for the ban, despite intense pressure from the international community not to do so.

Reflecting U.S. concerns, Vice President Joe Biden has proposed deferring a decision on the candidates until after the elections. Talabani said Biden is expected in Iraq soon to discuss the proposal. But in a sign that he may receive a less than warm welcome in Baghdad, the Iraqi president slammed the suggestion as contrary to the constitution.

“We are an independent country and will not receive orders from anyone, whether it is a brotherly Arab country, a neighboring country, or a friend,” he said.

The Accountability and Justice Commission, which ordered the ban on candidates, replaced the Debaathification Commission that was set up by former U.S. coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer. It is chaired by Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite who is also a candidate with the dominant Shiite coalition.

Iraq’s parliament created a new commission in 2008 but has been unable to agree on its composition, leaving Chalabi and other members of the original panel in their jobs.