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Clinton Opposes Exclusion of Sunnis From Iraq Election

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday the United States would oppose any new effort to exclude large numbers of Sunni Arab politicians from Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections. Iraq's most senior Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi discussed the issue in Washington this week with top administration officials.

Obama administration officials are worried that the exclusion of Sunnis from the election would undermine the process and perhaps spur new unrest that could complicate U.S. troop withdrawal plans.

An Iraqi government panel last month disqualified more that 500 Sunni candidates for being members or supporters of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

A panel of Iraqi judges on Wednesday ordered the reinstatement of the candidates. But the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the decision illegal and indicated it would submit the matter to the current parliament.

Iraqi Vice President al-Hashimi raised concern about the issue in a round of Washington meetings this week including a White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden Monday that was briefly joined by President Obama.

Al-Hashimi told reporters late Thursday the U.S. administration is considering the idea of refusing to recognize the election if the Sunnis are again excluded.

In a talk with reporters Friday, Secretary Clinton said the administration has not made any decision on how to respond to such a turn of events.

But she said the United States was heartened by the court decision to reinstate the Sunnis, and cares very deeply that election be free and fair and viewed as legitimate by all communities within Iraq and by its neighbors.

She called the March election an "extraordinary opportunity" for Iraqis to consolidate democracy.

"We see an enormous amount of political activity, which is all to the good. Iraq is now engaged in politics," she said. "People are forming coalitions and seeking votes, and reaching beyond their own community to do so. That is exactly what we want to encourage. So obviously, anything that would undermine the potential legitimacy would be of concern to us."

Vice President Biden paid a surprise visit to Iraq late last month to meet with Prime Minister al-Maliki and other officials to discuss the election and U.S. concerns.

The Iraqi Prime Minister has accused Baathists of supporting the Al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group, which is blamed for a series of major car bomb attacks in Baghdad in recent weeks.

Iraqi political reconciliation is considered critical to U.S. plans to remove combat troops from Iraq in August, ahead of a planned complete military withdrawal by the end of next year.