A controversial committee that nearly derailed the Iraqi election in January has resurfaced. Led by Ahmed Chalabi, a former ally of the Pentagon, the committee this week announced that six winning candidates in the March 7 parliamentary election are connected to the former regime of Saddam Hussein and must be disqualified.
Critics say it's no coincidence that disqualifying them will erase the lead of secular candidate Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya alliance of Shiites and Sunnis. Allawi's electoral list won 91 seats in parliament and topped the State Of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which won 89 seats.
Allawi's slim, two-seat margin should mean he gets the first try at forming a government.
But this week, a committee of the outgoing parliament announced that four members of Allawi's coalition are linked to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Muhammad Uthman from Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, is one of those names.
It's political elimination, Uthman said during a telephone interview. He has gone into hiding, and he changed his appearance, putting on a traditional Arab headdress before traveling to Baghdad this week.
Uthman says that he was never a member of the Baath Party and that the arrest warrant against him is false
He says he is not guilty, and that he was head of his district in Diyala for four years. He asks: Why didn't they come arrest me then?
In Baghdad, he tried to protest the ruling by the de-Baathification committee. The group was originally appointed by the U.S. and run by Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi dissident. Just before the elections, the committee disqualified more than 500 candidates, nearly derailing the vote.
At a news conference this week, the committee was back at work, announcing that six of the winning candidates are Baathists. That includes the four members from Allawi's slate, which is enough to erase his slim margin of victory.
Ali al-Lami, now the director of the committee, said the candidates were only allowed to run in the first place because of pressure from the United Nations and the United States.
Lami said the committee won't allow any foreign power to interfere, including the U.S. Embassy.
But many Iraqi lawmakers charge that the committee has been used against Chalabi's political rivals and never presented evidence against the accused.
America's ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said the process needs to be open.
"We understand the provisions for de-Baathification that are in the law, that are in the constitution. What needs to happen is that there needs to be a transparent, open process. People can blame the United States as much as they want, but they need to take this matter to the Iraqi courts," he said.
Iraqi courts have sided with the de-Baathification committee in the past, as has sitting Prime Minister Maliki, who has already vowed to overturn the result by any legal means.
The next question is what happens to the votes earned by people like Uthman.
"I got 9,700 votes. Do you think those people will be happy if I am eliminated?" he asks. Uthman stopped short of predicting violence, but that may not last. The committee wants to simply throw out the votes and not permit Allawi's coalition to substitute new names for the disqualified candidates. The Iraqi court will rule soon, and Iraq may get a whole new list of election results.