Iraq election chiefs quit as attacks kill 37

BAGHDAD (AFP) - The board of Iraq's electoral commission resigned en masse on Tuesday in protest at political and judicial "interference", throwing a general election due next month into disarray.

The sudden decision comes with doubts already swirling over whether the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) could organise polling nationwide on April 30 with anti-government fighters in control of a city on Baghdad's doorstep.

Much is at stake in the election, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki bids for a third term with his security credentials thrown into question by a surge in violence to levels not seen since 2008, with 37 more people killed on Tuesday.

The nine-member IHEC board handed in its resignation in protest at what it said were conflicting rulings from parliament and the judiciary on the barring of would-be candidates for the election.

"The commission is today caught between two authorities - the legislative and the judicial - and the two have issued contradictory decisions," IHEC spokesman Safa al-Mussawi told AFP.

"We are stuck in the middle, so we have decided to resign." An aide to IHEC chairman Sarbat Rashid told AFP that he backed the decision. An IHEC board member, who did not want to be identified, said the same.

"They are very frustrated with this judicial panel for the elections... excluding candidates," a diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity. "They are very unhappy with judicial interference, with political interference." The resignations still have to be approved by parliament, the source added.

Several candidates have been barred in recent weeks on the grounds of alleged ties to now executed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

But a greater source of frustration for the IHEC board has been the exclusion of scores of hopefuls on the basis of what critics say is a vague provision in Iraq's electoral law that requires that parliamentary hopefuls be "of good reputation".

Those barred, who include former finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Maliki opponent, have no obvious avenue of appeal against the judicial panel's decision.

Parliament has meanwhile reportedly ruled that IHEC must not bar any candidates unless they have criminal convictions, a decision the IHEC spokesman said was at odds with that of the judicial panel.