by RAY FLEMING

THE last sentence in Jack Straw's remarkable letter to Tony Blair about his forthcoming meeting with President Bush in April 2002 (see today's Looking Around reads: “Iraq has no history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience.” Prophetic and wise words.

Iraq's delayed general election, on which so much depends, is due to take place on 7 March. But at the end of last week the Accountability and Justice Commission announced that it had banned more than 400 Sunni candidates from standing at the election; two of those named are ministers in Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-led government, one of them the defence minister. If this ruling is not reversed it will threaten the legitimacy of an election on which the withdrawal of the 125'000 US troops remaining in Iraq depends. The ban on the Sunni candidates is apparently based on the US “de-Ba'athification” law passed hurriedly after the invasion of 2003 and intended to rid the new Iraq administration of Saddam Hussein loyalists in the Ba'ath party. The Commission responsible for the decision says that there are still “Ba'athist remnants” among those it has banned but a more general view is that the move is intended to lessen Sunni influence in a future Iraqi government. A more likely outcome is the boycotting of the election by Sunni and other voters, leading to a result that could not be regarded as democratically valid.

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