BAGHDAD (AFP) -- Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq threatened military action in a bid to prevent a parliamentary election being held next month, as official campaigning started in the country on Friday.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi warned in an audiotape that his Al-Qaeda front, the Islamic State of Iraq, had "decided to prevent the elections by all legitimate means possible, primarily by military means," US monitors SITE said.
Baghdadi condemned the March 7 general election as a political crime plotted by Iraq's Shiite majority, according to the 34-minute recording posted on jihadist websites and picked up by SITE.
The vote is seen as a key test of reconciliation for Iraq, which has been wracked by sectarian hostilities since late dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
It is also considered by Washington as a crucial precursor to a complete US military withdrawal by the end of 2011.
The run-up to campaign opening had been dominated by the legacy of Saddam and his Sunni Arab former elite, which still looms large more than two years after his execution.
A row over candidates accused of ties to Saddam's outlawed Baath party has left key members of the country's dominant Shiite majority anxious to extinguish every trace of his influence, fanning tension among Sunnis.
An integrity and accountability committee announced late Thursday that 28 of 177 candidates banned from the vote for alleged Baathist links would be allowed to stand after all, a small proportion of more than 500 originally blacklisted.
Two Sunni parliamentary stalwarts, Saleh al-Mutlak and Dhafer al-Ani from the secular Iraqiya list of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, are among those who have been excluded.
"This is the coup de grace of the political process and the suicide of democracy in Iraq," Mutlak said in a television interview.
"I don't think this measure will help the turnout but they will not succeed in splitting us from our people," he added.
Iraqiya posters featuring Mutlak could still be seen in Baghdad on Friday.
Allawi and fellow secular list leader Jawad Bolani, currently the interior minister, are both trying to unseat Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite. They were the worst affected by the ban.
A panel of judges had previously said barred candidates could stand on condition that their cases be examined after the polls and would eliminate them if they were found to be Baathists, but this ruling was reversed.
The lead-up to the election, the second ballot to elect a parliament and government in Iraq since Saddam was toppled, has been marred by a lack of national unity.
This was highlighted outside Baghdad, with several provincial council leaders demanding the sacking of public sector workers whom they say are Baathists.
In the central province of Karbala, lists of people to be fired from their jobs have been drawn up.
"We started to form an accountability and justice committee, following public demand, and we will implement the law by eliminating Baathists from the departments of the province," said Karbala Governor Muhammad al-Mussawi.
"We will inform the department directors, giving them a list of names who were part of the Baath party and providing supporting evidence," he added.
The deputy governor of Babil province, a brigadier general in Saddam's army, has been told to stop work and has been put on leave.
And in Dhi Qar province, three high-ranking officers from the security forces have been sacked, a provincial council official said.
"Two of them were colonels in the former Iraqi army, and the third was a lieutenant colonel in the police," the official said. "They were active members in the Baath party."
Around 19 million people have the right to vote, including 1.4 million Iraqi citizens now living abroad in 16 countries, according to election organisers.
A total of 6,500 candidates will contest the ballot in an election that will feature 10,000 polling stations and 54,000 ballot boxes, according to Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.
There are currently 107,000 US troops in Iraq, but the number is scheduled to fall to 50,000 by August when all American combat soldiers are due to pull out.
By Salam Faraj