In the run-up to a general election due on March 7th,Iraqs authorities seem to be taking a page out of Irans illiberal electoral rule book by barring candidates they dislike. One of the competing parties,the Iraqi National Congress,led by Ahmed Chalabi,a longtime Shia exile who helped persuade George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003,has persuaded the elections overseers to ban some 500 candidates deemed too close in the past to Saddam Husseins Baath party. After the invasion the Americans put Mr Chalabi,then their closest Iraqi ally,in charge of deBaathification,but he later fell out with them,so he turned for succour to Iran. Now,with a view to winning more votes for himself,he is using his long-dormant post to accuse his foes of having supported the deposed dictator. Though the list contains many Shias,Iraqs minority Sunnis,who ruled the roost under Mr Hussein,are outraged,seeing a plot to discriminate against them. The episode could badly tarnish the poll.
Many other Shia politicians have joined what looks like a witch hunt. Muhammad al-Haidari,a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI),a powerful Shia group,says that Baathists are worse than Nazis; all past members should,he says,be banned from public life. In the holy city of Najaf,ISCIs heartland,a new rule decrees that former Baathists must be purged from government and chased out of town. Never mind that Iraqs post-invasion constitution bars only senior Baathists from public office and that millions of ordinary Iraqis joined the party only out of necessity,not conviction. Ostracising them threatens once again to split Iraq down the middle and disfranchise many Sunnis,who used to dominate the Baath party.
Yet the ban is also backed by some Sunni politicians,especially those who belong to the fading Islamic Party,because its old-guard leaders see a chance to weaken secular Sunni rivals who muddled through under Mr Hussein but who have recently become more popular. DeBaathification,in short,is good for Sunni Islamists and Shia theocrats. They point fingers at politicians such as Saleh al-Mutlaq,a moderate secular member of parliament who left the Baath party in 1977,and General Abdul Qader,a Sunni who has been a notably effective defence minister in a four-year fight against extremists. No credible evidence against them has so far been shown.
Yet another kind of Baathist threat does exist. A group of Sunnis sympathetic to Mr Hussein are believed to be behind a series of spectacular suicide car-bombs that have struck Baghdad in the past six months. On January 25th three killed at least 41 people. But none of the banned candidates has any known link to the bombers or any current insurgency.
In any event,the issue has badly damaged the election prospects of alliances seeking to rise above sectarian prejudice. With other moderate leaders,Nuri al-Maliki,the prime minister,had been building up one of three non-sectarian alliances,uniting Sunnis and Shias on a single electoral ticket. Voters seemed to approve,giving him strong support in last years provincial elections that were seen as a dry run for this years general one. Mr Maliki had hoped to change the violent and divisively sectarian nature of Iraqi politics.
No longer,it seems. After Mr Chalabis list came out,Mr Maliki watched in horror as it gained a striking amount of support. Then,sensing a new political momentum,he announced he would back the ban. Apparently reckoning he would be unable to beat his Shia rivals,he decided to join them. The government in Tehran may have given him a friendly wink.
So sectarian rivalry is once again to the fore. The two non-religious alliances competing against Mr Malikis front are running out of candidates. Mr Mutlaq had a promising liaison with Iyad Allawi,a Shia,who was a tough,secular-minded former prime minister. But between them they may lose 72 candidates to deBaathification. An alliance between Jawad al-Bolani,the Shia interior minister,and Ahmed abu Risha,a Sunni tribal lord,could lose 67.
Some Sunnis are calling for a boycott of the election. They have stayed away before,spurning the last poll,in 2005,because they said the system was stacked against them. Many saw no choice but to help the Sunni insurgents. Now many of them feel backed into a corner once more. If fighting were to flare up again,it could delay the departure of American combat troops,planned by Barack Obama for the late summer. His vice-president,Joe Biden,has flown to Baghdad to discuss a possible compromise with Iraqs leaders. Even if one is found,the sectarian wounds that seemed to be healing have been dangerously reopened.