Election campaign kicks off in Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraq officially kicked off the campaign season Friday, just hours after an appeals panel banned a number of candidates from running in March nationwide elections.

Campaign posters were plastered across Baghdad and other cities by early Friday morning, urging people to go to the polls. In Basra, one poster read: "Your city needs someone who knows what Basra needs."

But in a move that was likely to raise tensions ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections between the Shiite-led government and Sunnis who claim they are politically undermined, the appeals panel late Thursday only cleared 28 candidates out of the hundreds blacklisted over suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The appeals were accepted either because of similarity of names or because there was not enough evidence against them," said Mudhafar al-Battat, a spokesman for the government-backed Accountability and Justice Committee — tasked with weeding out hardcore supporters of Saddam's outlawed Baath party.

Al-Battat declined to identify those candidates barred from the election.

Ali al-Lami, head of the committee that drafted the blacklist, said he had been informed by the appeals panel of its decision to bar Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani, the most prominent Sunni lawmakers.

Al-Mutlaq, a fierce critic of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has acknowledged he was a Baathist until the late 1970s but quit the party. Al-Ani took the helm of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament after its moderate leader Harith al-Obeidi was assassinated in June 2009.

A number of those candidates blacklisted were either replaced by their party or dropped out of the election altogether.

Within hours of the decision, campaign posters in Baghdad were plastered across concrete blast walls that double as makeshift billboards — a practice that has become popular in Iraq in recent years.

The start of campaigning had been postponed by more than a week to give the panel time to investigate the appeals of candidates on the blacklist.

Many candidates, including al-Maliki, were forced to remove campaign posters earlier this week after they were put up ahead of the official campaign period.