Sunni leader decides to take part in Iraq election
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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-zahra, Associated Press Writer 10 mins ago
BAGHDAD A top Sunni lawmaker who just last week pulled his party out of Iraq's upcoming election backtracked Thursday, ending any possibility that minority Sunnis would boycott the crucial March 7 vote.

Saleh al-Mutlaq's announcement that his National Dialogue Front would contest the race was the latest twist in an ongoing political saga that has gripped the Iraqi political establishment for weeks. A Sunni boycott could have called the vote's legitimacy into question, throwing the country into turmoil as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw.

Al-Mutlaq called on all Iraqis to participate in the election, which will determine who will lead the country as U.S. forces draw down.

"After so many calls from our supporters, the Iraqi people, not to give others a chance to spoil our project, your brothers in the National Dialogue Front have decided to actively participate ... in the upcoming elections," al-Mutlaq told a news conference.

Al-Mutlaq had withdrawn his party from the race just last Saturday because he had been banned from running by a committee vetting candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. He says he quit the Baath party in the 1970s.

It was unclear how al-Mutlaq's reversal would affect the vote or how much weight his initial decision to pull his party out of the race even had. The ballots had already been printed out and mailed to polling stations, and al-Mutlaq had never clarified what would happen to votes cast for his candidates.

When asked to explain his turnaround, al-Mutlaq said: "We do not want to be a reason the Sunni people lose."

Al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front has 11 seats in the outgoing legislature, the second-largest Sunni bloc in parliament. He fared well in last year's provincial elections, especially in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province.

His is the main Sunni faction in a secular alliance with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who appeared with al-Mutlaq at the news conference Thursday to declare his commitment to ending sectarian conflict in Iraq. Their pairup in the Iraqiya coalition is expected to pose a tough challenge to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition.

The decision by the Shiite-dominated committee to blacklist al-Mutlaq and hundreds of other candidates, most of them Sunnis, raised fears that Sunnis might shun the election or view the results as tainted.

The U.S. has tied its troop drawdown to a fair and smooth election process, and a significant outbreak of violence could slow or stop the withdrawal of combat forces slated for the end of the summer. A Sunni boycott of the January 2005 elections led to Sunnis being shut out of the political process and was followed by a sharp increase in sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.

U.S. officials have been closely watching the nationwide vote, for signs that it will be free and fair. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused neighboring Iran and other unidentified neighbors of Iraq of trying to influence the vote.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, said it would provide extra security to Christians and their religious institutions in the northern city of Mosul, and set up a committee to investigate a recent spate of killings against Christians there.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged the Iraqi government to do more to protect Christians in the northern city. At least eight Christians have been killed in Mosul since Feb. 14. The city is considered one of the last insurgent strongholds, and Christians, as well as other minorities, have frequently been targeted for attack.