Request to disqualify 100 candidates denied in Iraq

Voting begins today in prisons, military camps, hospitals


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Four days before most Iraqis vote for a new parliament, election officials turned down yesterday a government request to disqualify nearly 100 candidates suspected of having held midlevel leadership posts in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

The decision, swiftly denounced by members of the ruling coalition, said the disputed candidates' names would remain on Thursday's ballot because a government panel set up to purge former Baathists from public office had not offered proof of rank in the now-outlawed party.

Election officials postponed the explosive issue, warning that anyone winning a legislative seat could lose it if such proof emerged. More than 7,600 candidates are vying for 275 seats in the full-term, four-year Representative Council, which will replace the interim National Assembly elected in January.

Meanwhile, voting begins today in hospitals, military camps and even prisons across Iraq, starting the process to choose a new parliament that the United States hopes can help quell the insurgency so U.S. forces can begin heading home.

Iraq's government announced that it will close its borders, extend the nighttime curfew and restrict domestic travel starting tomorrow - two days before the main election day - to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote.

Also yesterday, Iraqi and British officials said they had no word on the fate of four Christian peace activists, more than a day after the expiration of a deadline set by kidnappers to kill them if all prisoners weren't released.

In a separate statement yesterday, officials said they were investigating a fivefold increase in the number of new voters in Kirkuk, an oil-rich, ethnically mixed northern city that Iraq's Kurds would like to incorporate into their self-ruled region.

Auditors checking voter lists struck 81,000 names after finding that some registration forms had missing signatures or more than one signature and that in some cases the same name appeared on several forms, the statement said. It did not implicate any party or group.

Also yesterday, an American soldier on patrol in Baghdad was killed by a roadside bomb, the military reported, bringing to seven the number of U.S. soldiers killed since Friday in Iraq. Assailants also bombed a polling station near Samarra and opened fire on a Turkman political party office in Mosul, wounding three people, police said.

The election, required by a new constitution ratified by voters Oct. 15, is the next step in a U.S.-guided effort to democratize Iraq in the wake of Hussein's ouster in April 2003.

American officials say they hope the government formed early next year by the new parliament will be broad enough to calm the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and enable the United States to begin withdrawing troops. Parties representing the Sunni minority boycotted the January election but are running this time and are certain to gain representation .

One conflict that could limit Sunni participation in a coalition government is the wrangling over which former Baathists may hold office. Sunnis filled most of the party's upper ranks, although some candidates whom the Shiite Muslim-led government tried to bar from Thursday's ballot are Shiites.

The government's blacklisting panel, the National De-Baathification Commission, originally demanded that 185 candidates be disqualified because they were accused of having served in the top four levels of the party hierarchy.

Of those, officials said, 35 to 40 candidates withdrew voluntarily. An additional 47 successfully challenged the panel by proving that their names had been confused with those of former Baathists.

But the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq refused to disqualify the roughly 100 remaining candidates. In a statement last night, it said a lack of evidence "raised doubt that can only be resolved in favor of the accused."

Members of the Shiite-led alliance leading the government called the ruling illegal and said they would challenge it in court.

"We have to make sure that those who were part of the previous brutal regime should not take part in the new Iraq," said Abaas Bayati, who represents the Shiite alliance in the National Assembly.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. Caesar Ahmed, Saif Rasheed, Suhail Ahmed and Raheem Salman of the Times' Baghdad bureau, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this article.

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