- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010

BAGHDAD | An Iraqi appeals court Wednesday set aside a ban on hundreds of candidates for suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime, allowing them to run in next month’s parliamentary election and offering a chance to ease political showdowns that had deeply worried the White House.

The decision could remove — at least temporarily — a major trouble spot in the planning for nationwide voting March 7 to pick lawmakers and the political blocs that will shape the next government in Baghdad.

The blacklist, with more than 450 names, has been widely denounced by Sunni political leaders who view it as a way for the Shi’ite-led government to undercut Sunni efforts to expand political clout.

For U.S. officials, the dispute rattled their main hopes for the election: a fresh push toward reconciliation between the majority Shi’ites and the Sunnis who were once on top during Saddam’s rule.

The concern about the election’s credibility grew so acute that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was in Baghdad last month appealing for ways to ease tensions.

The appeals court decision presents a path to postpone the wrenching debates over who should be ostracized for perceived ties to Saddam’s regime. But it came during another reminder that Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed is far from over.

A blast tore through a crowd of Shi’ite pilgrims just outside the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad, killing at least 23 people and injuring 120 in the second attack this week on the huge religious processions for annual observances, officials said.

Hours earlier, two separate roadside bombs targeting Shi’ite pilgrims exploded in Baghdad, killing one and wounding seven others, a security official in the capital said.

The official election campaign period begins Sunday. In recent days, some Sunni leaders had warned of a possible boycott call, which could have shattered the chances to seat a new parliament accepted by all sides.

The compromise offered by the appeals court is more of a yellow light rather than full green: The disputed candidates can run, but winners would not be allowed to take office until their links to the former regime had been fully examined.

This could just mean that the bickering could be delayed until the sensitive time of trying to form a new government after the voting.

A prominent Sunni political figure on the list, Saleh al-Mutlaq, hailed the ruling, however, saying it proved that Iraq’s judiciary was neutral.

“The Iraqi legal system is not affected by political decisions,” he said.

But the head of the vetting committee that drafted the blacklist accused the court of bowing to U.S. political muscle.

“The U.S. Embassy played an active role to pressure for the return of the banned candidates,” said Ali al-Lami, a Shi’ite who is also a candidate for parliament. There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials.

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