- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2010

The head of the Iraqi commission that initially disqualified about 500 candidates from running for office because of ties to the Ba’ath Party of dictator Saddam Hussein is rejecting a proposal he attributes to U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that would allow the purged politicians to run for office.

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, Ali al-Lami, the executive director of the Accountability and Justice Commission, said, “There is no compromise. This is a matter of the Iraqi Constitution. It is not a political issue.”

Tony Blinken, national security adviser to the vice president, told The Times that, “All the ideas on the table, including this one, are Iraqi ideas. There is no American plan. The vice president did not go to Iraq to deal with this problem; the Iraqis themselves are seized with it.”

A showdown over which Iraqis can run for office has the potential to plunge Iraq into a new civil war, according to one of the commission’s targets, Sunni Arab businessman-politician Saleh Mutlak.

Mr. al-Lami also is seeking political office in the March 7 election.

Mr. al-Lami said that the commission, after reviewing appeals on some of the original 511 candidates disbarred from the process, had winnowed the list of banned politicians to 454 members. One of the more than 50 people to have their names taken off the list and allowed to run is Yasin Mutlak, the purged candidate’s brother.

Mr. Biden met with Iraqi leaders over the weekend in anticipation of the March 7 elections.

“The Iraqi leaders the vice president met all discussed ideas for resolving the problem. And the vice president was in listening mode,” Mr. Blinken said.

If the ban on some candidates such as Saleh Mutlak holds, Iraq’s fifth consecutive nationwide election could be seen as tainted and fixed before any votes are cast.

The decision from Mr. al-Lami’s commission has drawn fire from rival Iraqi politicians in part because he has targeted politicians, such as Mr. Mutlak, who are political rivals to Mr. al-Lami’s Shi’ite majority coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance.

In public remarks, Mr. Biden said he was not in Iraq to resolve the issue, and it was for Iraqi politicians to resolve. He added that the United States “condemns the crimes of the previous regime, and we fully support Iraq’s constitutional ban on the return to power of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.”

Nonetheless, the Iraqi press and Mr. al-Lami said Mr. Biden, who once proposed turning Iraq into a loose confederation that many criticized as a de facto partition, proposed the solution of deferring the ruling on the candidates until after the election.

That compromise was for Iraqi candidates to sign a pledge denouncing the Ba’ath Party, but that the cases being reviewed by the commission would be taken up after the elections, allowing those disqualified to stay on the ballot.

Mr. Biden’s “suggestion was refused by the three members of the presidential commission,” Mr. al-Lami said. “The head of the parliament and the prime minister also refused this. This is in contradiction of the constitutional and legal requirements and also against the legal requirements of the election law and the constitution.”

The Ba’ath Party ruled Iraq from 1968 until the U.S. invasion in 2003, with Saddam, a Sunni Arab himself, as its sole head from 1979 on. Subsequent Iraqi governments have barred senior Ba’ath officials from running for office and holding jobs in the government. Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has complained that this process has been politicized, with many figures who have been purged from public life claiming they have not been able to see the files against them.

Mr. al-Lami is a controversial figure. In 2008, he was arrested by contractors working for the U.S. military on charges that he was a liaison between a Shi’ite group known as the League of the Righteous and Ahmad Chalabi, his friend and political patron.

The league was responsible for the execution-style murder in 2007 of five U.S. soldiers in Najaf. Its leader, Qais Qazali, was released last month. His release followed the league’s decision to release a British-born contractor named Peter Moore whom the league had kidnapped.

In an interview last week, Saleh Mutlak said that if the ruling of Mr. al-Lami’s commission stands, there was a potential for violence.

“What they are doing could be a real danger in the near future,” Mr. Mutlak said. “America wants to withdraw from Iraq, but if this stands it will lead to different factors in the political process, people will lose hope and there could be more violence.”

Mr. al-Lami said he considered those words to be “an indirect admission that he will commit to violence, in my personal opinion.”

Mr. Biden said over the weekend that he was “confident that Iraq’s leaders are seized with this issue and are working for a final, just solution.”

That solution may be left to the Iraqi courts. Iraq’s constitutional court is currently reviewing a case on the legality of Mr. al-Lami’s commission and whether it has the authority to bar candidates from elections. Another appeals court will be hearing the appeals of many of those candidates barred by the commission.

Najim Abed al-Jabouri, a former Iraqi mayor and police chief who is now a scholar at the National Defense University, said many of his countrymen were hoping the U.S. would play a role in overcoming the current political crisis.

“This is something that could tear Iraq apart potentially,” he said in an interview last week. “Iraqis are all in agreement that whoever has blood on their hands, that courts should prosecute them. But transforming these cases for political purposes and for political means, that is not in Iraq’s interest.”

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