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Key Iraqi Sunni Political Bloc Pulls Out of March 7 Parliamentary Election

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A key Sunni political bloc declared Saturday that it would not take part in Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election. Saleh al-Mutlak, who was banned from running by a parliamentary committee, is pulling his National Dialogue Front out of the election with just over a week to go before voting is set to begin.

The decision by veteran Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlak to pull his political bloc out of the approaching election poses a severe blow to the Iraqi electoral process, and gives ammunition to adversaries of any compromise.

An appeals court recently upheld a decision by a parliamentary committee barring al-Mutlak from running, because of alleged ties to the Baath Party of deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

                  Related video report by Deborah Block

Mutlak's spokesman, Haidar al-Mullah, told reporters that his National Dialogue Front was "boycotting the upcoming election" and urged other parties to do the same. He supported the decision by citing complaints by U.S. commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill over Iranian interference in the electoral process.

The parliament committee which banned dozens of prominent Sunni candidates from running in the election is led by pro-Iranian politicians Ahmad Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami. Chalabi denied, Friday, on Al Hurra TV, that Iran had any responsibility in the decision.

The withdrawal of al-Mutlak's party undermines the electoral alliance with his coalition partner and former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was expected to make a strong showing in the upcoming election. Allawi's spokeswoman Mayssoun al-Damluji indicated that the rest of the coalition would resume campaigning after a decision to suspend electoral efforts three days ago.

She says that Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc [a secular coalition of tat includes Suunis and Shi'ites] has decided to resume its campaigning after consulting with supporters and an extensive study of the current situation. The decision, she added, is tied to the will of opposing parties to stop poisoning the atmosphere and creating crises.

Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington says that Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc has now lost most of its credibility, without its key Sunni Arab partner. "Concerning Mutlak and [his] Iraqiya [bloc], Iraqiya has lost much of its credibility, because the attraction of Iraqiya, to the extent that it has an attraction, was the fact that it's the only coalition that has been formed so far that included prominent Shia and prominent Sunnis," she said.

"That coalition has now been undermined, because if Allawi runs without Mutlak, it's no longer kind of the non-sectarian coalition that it was, even if there are Sunnis. The balance has been lost, forever," she added.

Ottaway notes that most other coalitions, including that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have a token representation of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, but not the wide-based support of Mr. Allawi.

Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches politic science at the University of Paris, says that the credibility of the entire election is now lost with the withdrawal of al Mutlaq. He says that the withdrawal of Mutlak is a massive blow to the credibility of the election, even if other Sunni candidates, such as Vice President Tareq al Hashemi and the Sahwa tribal leaders stay in the ring.

He argues that the problem in Iraq is simple: so long as there is no compromise between credible Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish political leaders to rebuild the Iraqi state, all efforts will be lost. He notes that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes that the election may destabilize Iraq even further than it already is, rather that solidifying it.

Top U.S. officials, as well as many Iraqi Sunni leaders, have accused Iran of pushing for the decision to ban key Sunni politicians from running in the election. Marina Ottaway thinks that it may be a "bit much to see the long arm of [Iranian] President [Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad" behind the current crisis, because Iraq, she says, "has never had much of a democratic tradition."

Abou Diab, however, believes that the current political imbroglio has clear Iranian origins, and that Iran wants "to turn Iraq into a friendly client-state after the planned U.S. withdrawal," next August.

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