Playing with fire in Iraq
Playing with fire in Iraq
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Playing with fire in Iraq

Iraq’s already fragile political order has been thrust into further turmoil in the past three weeks over an attempt to bar 511 candidates, several of them prominent political figures, from legislative elections in March for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The decision, taken by Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission, has the potential to ignite a new civil war and precipitate the collapse of the post-2003 order.

The commission is a re-baptised but hardly reformed version of the De-Baathification Commission established by Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, in 2003. Lack of procedural clarity, transparency, or impartial oversight have turned it into a blunt weapon wielded by a small group of people to settle old scores and advance their own political fortunes in an election year. This group is feeding on and at the same time fanning popular fears concerning the former regime’s possible return, and hiding behind the broad support among the ruling parties for a process of de-Baathification designed to keep them in power. In an unstable Iraq that is anticipating a US troop withdrawal, the commission’s ruling has lit a brushfire that the fractious political elite may prove unable to put out.

While the impetus for the De-Baathification Commission’s decision to bar prominent candidates for the parliamentary elections does not seem to come from Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa Party, the party’s long-standing support for de-Baathification allows it to thrive. Indeed, the campaign’s initiators are exploiting two key vulnerabilities in the current order: ambiguities in the law, and the acquiescence of many Kurds and (religious) Shiites, whose sense of injury from the previous regime’s trepidations is a powerful undercurrent driving much of today’s revanchist politics.

Maliki has not only failed to condemn the commission’s decision to bar 511 candidates, he has embraced it, piously invoking the law – and surely reckoning that standing up for the Baath party in the name of reconciliation is political suicide, especially in an election year. Yet not many months ago, Maliki was negotiating with the Sunni leader Saleh al Mutlaq, one of the current campaign’s main targets, to form a joint coalition.

The crisis of today represents the consequences of yesterday’s bad policies: both the Americans and the ruling parties have encouraged the selective use of de-Baathification – whether to protect people with suspect records who were prepared to serve the new order, or those who proved useful in the campaign against insurgents. The US appears motivated primarily by the need to keep things relatively stable and solidly on track for a smooth troop withdrawal, regardless of what may come afterward. The Maliki government has used the threat of de-Baathification to bring people to its side and under its control, while getting rid of those who were unwilling to co-operate or whom it felt it could never trust.

The Baath party, which is today a thoroughly discredited shadow of its former self, would seem to pose little threat even to Iraq’s fragile political stability. But a small group of self-interested figures have seized the opportunity to use de-Baathification to advance their own electoral prospects, precipitating a far greater crisis in the process: the de-Baathification genie has escaped and gone on a rampage.

The chairman of the 2003 De-Baathification Commission was Ahmad al Chalabi, the mercurial darling of the neoconservatives and distributor of false intelligence. The parliament passed a new de-Baathification law in 2008, but failed to appoint the members of a new commission; Chalabi retained his post by default, as did the director of the commission’s implementation department, Ali Faisal al Lami, Chalabi’s trusted aide.

Al Lami, who was arrested by US forces in 2008 and accused of involvement with violent Iranian-backed groups, came out of prison in August 2009. He and Chalabi have joined a new Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. But both men retain their positions in the De-Baathification Commission, despite the glaring conflict of interest.

Is a state of law, candidates for parliament would have recused themselves from their tasks on behalf of an institution charged with screening candidates for parliament, but in today’s Iraq there is no enforcement of such salutary rules. Instead, personal vendettas and political score-settling are accepted practices along with rampant corruption and nepotism.

One of the principal deficiencies of the post-2003 order has been the absence of transitional justice, including an impartial vetting mechanism that would have judged former-regime adherents on their conduct rather than mere membership in a mass party which the regime used as an instrument of political control. Iraq could also have benefited from a truth and reconciliation commission, but that opportunity was passed over in Bremer’s post-invasion triumphalism. Instead we have a tribunal whose procedural irregularities have done much to polarise rather than effect reconciliation.

To compound the problem, lack of transparency and a recent history of sectarian conflict have given rise to suspicions that the commission’s primary impulse is sectarian. The evidence suggests something a little more nuanced – most of the barred candidates appear to be secular, from either Sunni or Shiite backgrounds – but the damage has been done. Sunnis feel they are the target, consistent with the rhetorical practice prevalent among ruling-party politicians of equating the Baath with Sunnis. Historically, this is a highly problematic proposition, but it has significant traction both inside and outside Iraq, especially because US administrators embraced it from the outset. It has caused irreparable damage.

In that context, besieged Sunnis tend to see an Iranian hand guiding the Shiite parties. There is little evidence that external factors have played a role in the latest events, however. Even the INA seems divided on Chalabi and al Lami’s campaign, with ISCI leaders condemning it both publicly and in private. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who represents a people that has suffered inordinately from the Baath regime, has also come out against it.

Some of the critics are in favour of developing a long-term strategic relationship with the United States, their protector, and believe that for this reason they must support pluralism and rotation of power through elections; they say they do not want a repeat of January 2005, when an election boycott by Sunni Arab political leaders helped trigger a sectarian war. Others were chided by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who has indicated more than once that he has had enough of Baghdad politicians and their sectarianism, incompetence, and relentless pursuit of self-interest, and who reportedly opposes the commission’s actions. Talabani has taken the lead, publicly questioning the commission’s legal standing and declaring he will direct the effort to find a way out of the crisis.

Such dissent in the ranks offers a glimmer of hope that it may not be too late to undo some of the damage, even if the genie itself cannot be wrestled back into its bottle. While a long-term solution may be out of reach, an accommodation might be finessed that would at least allow the elections to go forward as an inclusive exercise whose results will be accepted as legitimate by all parties concerned. As some Iraqis have suggested, the Accountability and Justice Commission should be fought with its own tricks, using ambiguities in the law to insist on procedures that would allow for proper and timely appeals with full disclosure of evidence, a delay in enforcement until after the elections, and even a reversal of the commission’s decision based on the fact that its staff failed to obtain the board’s approval, as per the law; that its board and staff have an uncertain standing under the 2008 law; and that both Chalabi and al Lami acted in a clear conflict of interest.

The haste with which the US vice president, Joseph Biden, conveyed himself to Baghdad last week suggests the depth of the Obama administration’s fears that the current crisis could upend its withdrawal plans. It is possible, however, that high-profile US mediation could backfire if the bulk of Iraqis, in a nationalist response, align themselves with the de-Baathifiers in opposition to “external intervention”.

If and when this latest pre-election crisis is overcome, a new parliament elected, and a government formed, Iraqi leaders should think seriously about taking another look at the post-2003 deficit in transitional justice. The current political elite may have invested too much in their narratives of victimhood and their use of revenge as a way to secure their own power to do this. But some may come to realise that their long-term survival lies in the political stability that would follow from a process of reconciliation.

Should they fail to strike out in that direction, the spectre of civil war will hover again on the Iraqi doorstep – brought on by these very same politicians and this particularly disastrous aspect of the American occupation’s legacy.

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