- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2010

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister on Sunday defended a decision to ban hundreds of candidates from the upcoming election, saying the decision was not intended to target the country’s minority Sunni population.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is up for re-election in the March 7 parliamentary vote, gave a detailed defense of the decision, saying it was made because the candidates were “blatantly propagating Baath Party ideas.”

“It’s not true that it targeted Sunnis,” Mr. al-Maliki said. “The decision will not at all affect the Sunni turnout for the election. The decision was made because some of those were blatantly propagating Baath Party ideas.”

The decision to keep hundreds of candidates from the election, including a prominent Sunni lawmaker, for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s ruling party has dominated Iraq’s political debate for weeks and reflects the deep sectarian differences that still divide the country.

Many in the country’s Sunni minority, which dominated the Baath Party leadership, were outraged by the decision, which they felt unjustly targeted Sunni political figures in an attempt to sideline them from the political process.

In discussing the ban, Mr. al-Maliki appeared to distance himself from the two men who initiated the process — Shi’ite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who both are running in the election. The two, who head the Accountability and Justice Committee, which vetted candidates for ties to the former regime, shocked the Iraqi political system when they announced a list of hundreds of names of people with ties to the former regime.

But Mr. al-Maliki emphasized that the legal justification for the ban came not from their initial decision but from a later committee, set up with parliamentary backing, to investigate their findings. The question of whether the Accountability and Justice Committee had a legal basis to take action has been a key source of contention in this debate.

Ever since the fall of Saddam in 2003, Iraq has been torn about how to deal with the former members of the ruling regime. A decision by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi army and purge the government of tens of thousands of former Baath Party members has been widely credited with helping incite the insurgency.

In 2008, thousands were allowed to retake government jobs as part of a national reconciliation process, but last fall tensions heightened again when Mr. al-Maliki accused Baathists of being behind a series of bombings targeting government buildings in Baghdad.

The Shi’ite prime minister gained popularity as a leader who was able to bring relative security and stability to this nation shattered by vicious sectarian fighting, in partnership with U.S. forces. The winner of next Sunday’s vote will preside over a drawdown of U.S. forces that will see all combat troops leave Iraq by the end of August and all American forces go home by 2011.

When asked whether he might ask for any U.S. forces to remain after 2011, Mr. al-Maliki said he was not afraid to ask for troops if needed but that he thought it would not be necessary.

“In my estimation as prime minister and with my knowledge of the capability of the Iraqi army and police, I think we are not in need of them, God willing,” he said.

The prime minister said security cooperation in the future between the United States and Iraq might not require American forces on the ground, but rather an agreement that could be activated if Iraq were to be in danger.

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