Only 1 in 5 blacklisted Iraqi candidates to run
BAGHDAD—Only one in five candidates accused of being loyalists to Saddam Hussein's regime successfully fought an order banning them from running in Iraq's national elections next month, officials said Sunday.
The Shiite official in charge of the vetting panel that is widely seen as targeting Sunnis also called on parliament to declare the already-outlawed Baath party a terrorist organization.
In his first press conference since the Baathist ballot purge, Ahmed Chalabi said the Accountability and Justice Committee that he heads "managed to reach results supporting (the) constitution."
The ban, which aims to bar candidates with links to the Baath party, is threatening to disrupt the March 7 parliamentary elections, and could throw the vote results in dispute if there is a broad perception that Sunnis have been politically sidelined.
Chalabi is the Shiite politician who aided U.S. efforts to drum up support for the 2003-U.S.-led invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein. The legality of his panel also is under debate. He also accused Washington of meddling in Iraqi politics.
U.S. officials worry that escalating tensions over the ban could spill over into Iraq's streets, undermining hard-won security gains ahead of the planned withdrawal of American combat troops by the end of August.
A spate of attacks targeting security forces, political figures and civilians has struck Baghdad in recent days, despite an overall decline in violence in Iraq.
Sunday, a bomb hidden in a plastic bag detonated inside a popular cafe in Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City, killing at least two people and wounding six, an Iraqi police official said.
A medical official confirmed the casualties. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the Iraq war hasn't been worth its "horrible price," saying it was mishandled from the start. Still, Biden predicted in comments aired Sunday on NBC that next month's elections would be a success, with "full participation by the Sunni, Shia, Kurds and other minorities."
Sunday's announcement in Baghdad was intended to be the Debaathification panel's final word on the bitter vetting process that has spurred a Sunni boycott threat.
It also has unnerved U.S. and international diplomats who are banking on a fair and open election to smooth Iraq's path ahead as American forces prepare to fully withdraw by the end of next year.
Panel attorney Abdul Rihman Sabri said 535 candidates were initially flagged for having Baathist ties, but 67 were cleared after an investigation indicated their names were only similar to those of Baath party members.
Nearly 300 candidates were either replaced by their parties or dropped out of the running. Sabri said that of the 177 candidates who appealed the blacklist, 26 were cleared to run.
A seven-judge appeals panel appointed by the country's Supreme Judicial Council is still looking at a handful of cases.
The exact number of blacklisted candidates -- and those who fought it -- has fluctuated over the last several days, reflecting the lack of transparency within the highly charged process.
One of the most prominent banned candidates is Sunni parliament lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has acknowledged he was a Baathist until the late 1970s, when he quit the party. Many Iraqis -- Sunni and Shiite -- were Baathists during Saddam's reign to secure jobs or attend university.
Al-Mutlaq is a fierce critic of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is leading the purge of Baathists whom he accuses of working with al-Qaida insurgents to threaten Iraq's security and government. Dozens of candidates from al-Mutlaq's political coalition, the Iraqi National Movement, also have been banned from running.
Sabri cited "sufficient evidence" to ban al-Mutlaq: a tape of a July 22, 2008, parliament session when the lawmaker praised Baathist ideology.
Al-Mutlaq rejected the allegations, and challenged Sabri to release the recording.
"If he is sure about such a tape, I ask him to show the tape to the media," he told The Associated Press.
The political turmoil surrounding the ballot blacklist contrasted sharply with the U.S. vice president's comments Sunday that the Iraqi government that has "managed the transition well."
Joe Biden also reiterated his criticism of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, saying the U.S. should have been focusing on the terror threat from Afghanistan.
"We lost support around the world," Biden said in a taped interview with NBC's "Meet the Press."
"It's taken a lot of hard work to get it back," Biden said. "But we were dealt a hand, and I think we're handling it incredibly well...the Iraqis are handling it well."
Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.