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Iraq court lifts ban on hundreds of candidates

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi appeals court Wednesday struck down a ban imposed on hundreds of candidates for suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's regime, allowing them to run in next month's election, an official said.

The move could neutralize a major source of tension ahead of key March elections.

The blacklist — which has more than 450 names — was widely criticized by Sunni political leaders who claimed it was being used as a political tool to marginalize them by the Shiite-led government. Washington also worries about any disputes that could challenge the credibility of March 7 parliamentary elections and last month sent Vice President Joe Biden on a mission to try to ease the pre-election tensions.

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, sought a compromise strategy by shifting the issue to the nation's highest appeals court, which then came up with a compromise of its own: the candidates could run, but would not be allowed to take office until their links to the former regime had been fully examined.

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

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

Election commission member, Hamdiya al-Hussaini, said the decision sets aside the election ban for now, but any winners on the list would "not enjoy their rights" until they have been cleared of any possible links to Saddam's regime.

Iraq's Shiite-led government has pushed hard to weed out Saddam-era officials from public offices and security forces — a policy initiated by the United States shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Many Sunnis believe the policy went too far, penalizing innocent people who had to join the Baath Party to advance in their chosen careers. The loss of so many experienced professionals also hampered the functioning of many government ministries in the years after the U.S.-led invasion.

Washington fears the pervasive Sunnis dissatisfaction over the policy could undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are seen as a crucial step toward reconciliation between majority Shiites and the Sunnis who lost power with Saddam's fall.

Although the list does include some Shiites, Sunnis have complained they were unfairly targeted by the Shiite-led government.

Ali al-Lami, head of the political vetting committee that drafted the blacklist — and is a parliament candidate himself — said he interpreted the appeals court ruling as allowing the candidates to run.

"It gives the right to take part in the elections and then to verify their appeals (against accusations of Saddam ties) after the voting," he told The Associated Press.

A Sunni parliament member, Mustafa al-Hiti, called the decision a "step forward on the path of democracy in Iraq."

"It upheld the power of law and foiled attempts to politicize it," he said. "We welcome it and hail it as a major factor that will help us see transparent and fair elections."