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Sunni party drops out of Iraq's national elections

BAGHDAD — Iraq's main Sunni party said Saturday it is dropping out of next month's national elections, seizing on U.S. concerns about Iran's influence in the political process as proof that the vote will not be legitimate.

A statement from the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue stopped short of urging Sunni voters to boycott the March 7 parliamentary election. But the party called on other political groups to join it in withdrawing from the ballot.

Saturday's announcement raises the likelihood that the results of the vote will be called into question. U.S. and United Nations diplomats have expressed fears that a Sunni boycott that hands victory to Shiites would throw the results of the election into doubt. In turn, that could open the door to a new round of violence and delay plans for American troops to leave Iraq.

"The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda," party spokesman Haidar al-Mullah said in a statement, referring to Iran's alleged interference.

He said the party decided to pull out of the vote after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American military commander in Iraq, each described the Shiite leaders of a candidate-vetting panel as having ties to Iran.

The vetting panel is led by Shiite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi. It banned more than 440 candidates whom it described as loyalists to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.

Most of the blacklisted candidates are Sunni, although some are Shiite. Among those barred from running is Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, the head of the National Dialogue party. Al-Mutlaq has said he quit the Baath party in the 1970s.

In a speech last week to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, Odierno said the U.S. has direct intelligence that al-Lami and Chalabi "are clearly influenced by Iran." Odierno also accused al-Lami of having been "involved in various nefarious activities in Iraq for some time."

A day later, Hill told reporters in Washington that "absolutely, these gentlemen are certainly under the influence of Iran."

Hill added: "We remain concerned about Iran's behavior toward its neighbors. Iran should have a good relationship with its neighbor, but it needs to do a much better job of respecting its neighbor's sovereignty."

U.S. and U.N. officials in Baghdad did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

A perception among Sunnis that they are being shut out of the election could set back progress the U.S. military has made since 2007 in reversing the insurgency, which threatened Iraq with civil war. A breakdown in security could also hamper U.S. plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August, a step that is critical to President Barack Obama's new focus on Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has blamed Baathists, in part, for a spate of horrific attacks on government buildings, hotels and religious sites since August that killed hundreds of people. Like most Shiite politicians in Iraq, al-Maliki has had a close relationship with Iran.

But the prime minister has also tried to distance himself from Tehran recently, and said Saturday that protecting Iraq's sovereignty is one of his highest priorities.

"He who is unable to keep the security of Iraq and its sovereignty should resign and announce his failure," al-Maliki told supporters in Basra, located 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.

The National Dialogue currently has 11 members in parliament, including al-Mutlaq. It is the main Sunni wing of the Iraqi National Movement, the nation's top nonsectarian coalition. The Shiite wing of the National Movement is headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Shortly after al-Mullah issued his statement Saturday morning, another party, the National Council for Tribes of Iraq, said it also would drop out. The party includes both Sunnis and Shiites.

With freshly printed ballots already being delivered to local governments across Iraq, it was not clear how the Sunni party planned to advise supporters who still could vote for the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. Multiple attempts to reach Al-Mullah on Saturday were unsuccessful.

Iraqi election officials say they expect about 19.8 million voters on March 7, and have opened 10,000 polling centers across the country.