BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric on Friday defended a panel's decision to bar almost 500 candidates from Iraq's next election because of ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party, likening the party to the Nazis.
As a controversy threatening to reopen the wounds of Iraq's sectarian divide deepened, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) lawmaker Mohammad al-Haidari called for the ban to be enforced.
"The Baath party is worse than the Nazi party," Haidari said in a speech during Friday prayers. "If Baathists return to power, God forbid, their revenge will be even more ferocious."
The Justice and Accountability Commission, an independent body that aims in part to ensure the Baath party does not return to public life, said last week that 15 parties should be prevented from standing in the March 7 election.
The list included prominent Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, generating widespread protests from once dominant Sunnis that Iraq's majority Shi'ites were trying to sideline them.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the sectarian warfare between Shi'ites and Sunnis that was unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The conflict has subsided but violent attacks by suspected Sunni Islamists remain common.
The parliamentary election in March is a key test of Iraq's growing stability as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by end-2011 and the government signs oilfield development contracts that could turn the war-shattered country into a top oil producer.
The list of barred candidates grew to 499 on Thursday -- out of 6,500 in total -- when it was upheld by Iraq's independent electoral commission.
It would grow even longer after ministries submitted their own lists of candidates who should be barred for other reasons, such as for forging university degrees or because of criminal records, said election commission member Hamdiya al-Husseini.
The Baath party is outlawed in the constitution. But many Sunnis see the effort to ban candidates with Baathist links as a conspiracy by the Shi'ite-led government to disenfranchise Sunnis, a view that could feed the lingering insurgency.
Yet the list approved by the electoral commission named Kurds and Shi'ites too. It also included Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim, a Sunni who is a member of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition. Maliki governs with the support of ISCI but they will be rivals in the election.
"This issue doesn't worry us. The minister will present documents showing that he was not linked (to the former regime) and that he was fired and jailed for seven years," said Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammad al-Askari.
"This is all part of the political battle, political jousting aimed at toppling successful people."
Banned candidates can appeal to a seven-judge panel.
Mutlaq planned to run in the poll with former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, on a nationalist platform that was expected to perform well. He has announced he will appeal.
"The work of this justice and accountability commission is a sword that threatens to behead the democratic process," he said.
The commission, which replaced a de-Baathification Committee set up by U.S. administrators, was still discussing whether to ban 40-50 other candidates, said de facto leader Ali al-Lami, a Shi'ite politician viewed by U.S. officials as close to Tehran.
Analysts said it was natural for successors of an oppressive regime like the Baathists to try to eradicate any trace of it so it poses no threat to the emerging political system.
"When they impose a ban on people because they suspect they are Baathists, it means that they are frightened that they (the former rulers) are still capable of winning public opinion to their side," said Iraqi university professor Hazim al-Nuaimi.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Matthew Jones