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Avoiding Crisis in Iraq's Political Minefield

Interviewee: Reidar Visser, Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
January 25, 2010

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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Iraq last week (LAT) as frustration mounted over the banning of more than five hundred secular-leaning candidates from the March 7 parliamentary elections. On January 25, Iraqi election officials announced plans to reinstate (AFP) dozens of election candidates. But Reidar Visser, editor of Iraq-focused website www.historiae.org, says the Accountability and Justice Board's efforts to ban the candidates have highlighted troubling issues within the Iraqi political and legal framework--from deepening sectarianism to aggressive Iranian meddling. In the near term, Visser says Washington must dispel the perception that the candidate bans have been directed only at Sunnis--they have not. More than that, Visser says the United States should be more assertive in confronting efforts to subvert Iraq's political process. Doing so, he says, will help "plant some sort of hope among the many Iraqis that have been intimidated by the decisions of this de-Ba'athification board and feel that there are problems with the whole political system in the country."

Vice President Biden was in Iraq last week to try and mediate what is becoming a political crisis in Baghdad. Hundreds of candidates have been barred from the March 7 parliamentary balloting by the Accountability and Justice Board. Western governments have cried foul. What's going on in Iraq, and why is it being called a crisis?

It's been defined as a crisis in the West because it's seen as a problem in terms of Sunni participation in the elections. I think that is a too-narrow interpretation. It's true that some of these five hundred-plus banned candidates belong to parties that are seen as more representative of the Sunni community than any other segment of the Iraqi community, but lots of others are secular parties that would be meaningless to try to pin down as a Sunni or Shiite party. And there are lots of Shiites on that list of banned candidates. This is an indication of a far deeper systemic problem in Iraq. The problem with these exclusions is not that they hit a particular group, but that they hit individuals in a very arbitrary fashion. There seems to be no firm legal basis for what is being done. That speaks volumes about far more profound problems concerning the democracy we are talking about in Iraq.

Timeline: The Iraq War Who are these 511 or so candidates? Shia, Sunni, Ba'athist, all of the above?

The largest single group, if you can identify them on the basis of political affiliation, would be the secular nationalists. Parties like Iraqiyya of Ayad Allawi, and Unity of Iraq of Jawad al-Bolani and Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening--those secular nationalist parties I think account for at least half of all the five hundred exclusions. Then there are independents, and then there are some symbolic cuts in the Shiite Islamist lists. That's in the order of let's say, ten or twenty per list, whereas for example, Iraqiyya say they have seventy-two candidates that have been banned. So that's one list accounting for almost a fifth of all the exclusions.

What's behind these disqualifications?

This is the comeback strategy of those forces that lost in the last local elections in 2009. One year ago, in 2009 in the local elections, we had an atmosphere that was not particularly sectarian. Among those parties that really did poorly in those elections were the Shiite Islamists that are particularly close to Iran, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI. Their strategy throughout 2009 was to try to get the Ba'athist issue back on the agenda because [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki, one year ago, was about to start to cooperate precisely with people like Saleh al-[Mutlaq], who's now being excluded. When he tried to do that--we're talking April of last year--ISCI started a fierce media campaign, attacking Maliki for cooperating with Ba'athists. Maliki got rather paranoid on this Ba'athist dimension and ended up being more anti-Ba'athist than ISCI. During the course of that process, Maliki lost a good deal of his nationalist credentials, because one year ago he was really seen as someone who was able to rise above sectarianism and project an image of a national leader for Sunnis and Shiites alike. But that image hasn't fully survived, and really it was damaged in 2009. His fierce anti-Ba'athist rhetoric certainly played a role in that.

Can we point a finger, then, at the perpetrators of this round of disqualifications? Give us a sense of who this Accountability and Justice Board is, and about the connections to [Ahmed] Chalabi.

This whole incident serves as a wake-up call for deeper systemic problems concerning Iranian influence in Iraq, because the individuals who have been driving this forward are very close to Iran--like Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, who are directing the Accountability and Justice Board. They spend lots of time in Iran--Chalabi was often in Iran last year working to put together the new Shiite alliance for the elections. Much of that took place in Tehran, and lots of Shiite Iraqis traveled to Tehran last May. Chalabi orchestrated the creation of the new Shiite alliance. And so if you look at the leading personalities in the Accountability and Justice Committee, that's where it's possible to do some specific finger-pointing. But what is equally remarkable is the fact that no one of the others within the Iraqi system bothered to resist it. That is what I find particularly alarming: the lack of resistance from the rest of the system. The elections commission said, "Go ahead with it." The parliament said, "You can go ahead with it." The government said, "Go ahead with it." The federal supreme court has not intervened yet. That absence of resistance says a lot of about the continued influence of Iran.

This whole incident serves as a wake-up call for deeper systemic problems concerning Iranian influence in Iraq, because the individuals who have been driving this forward are very close to Iran.

Can you just remind us why the Ba'athist issue is such an appealing target for Iraqi politicians?

It's an interesting question, because the realities are that before 2003, lots of Iraqis were in one way or another cooperating with the regime--Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds-- in the tens of thousands. It was not, as is frequently portrayed in the West, an extremely Sunni-dominated regime. It was certainly Sunni-dominated at the very top, but there were tens of thousands of Shiites who worked for the system.

The politicians who came to dominate after 2003 were the exiled politicians, and those politicians had not collaborated with the regime simply because they were not in the country at the time. They imposed this narrative of a squeaky clean de-Ba'athified society and a complete break with the Ba'ath Party, which of course was impossible. We saw that when [former American administrator of the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority] L. Paul Bremer announced the dissolution of the Iraqi army. It was a major problem, and it would have been impossible to rebuild Iraqi society without co-opting many ex-Ba'athists.

What happened was that this was done in a very selective way. The Shiites and Kurds were silently un-Ba'athified, to put it that way. They were silently put back in service, whereas Sunnis were very often excluded. So, in practice, de-Ba'athification turned into an attack on the Sunnis. That's why I find the whole narrative related to these de-Ba'athification issues to be highly hypocritical, because the Shiite Islamist parties continue to say that Ba'athists are a major problem, whereas at the same time they have silently co-opted and reinstated lots of Ba'athists just because they were Shiites.

The situation in Iraq now has undertones of 2005 and 2006, when sectarian tensions were at an apex. How might these disagreements in the political arena translate to the security arena?

I see this as primarily a return to the dynamics to the 2005 elections. Throughout 2009 the big question was, "Would there be a single Shiite alliance or not?" If a single Shiite alliance comes about in the end, it will be an exact replay of 2005. After a lot of internal Shiite quarreling, there wasn't a pre-election alliance, but I think that this whole de-Ba'athification issue is increasing the likelihood that there will be a Shiite alliance in the end. The thing with the elections right now is that we're talking about five or six major entities that are truly competitive, so no one can get an outright majority, and that means they will be looking for coalition forming after the elections. And that's where I think the Shiite alliance may reemerge. There's little doubt that Iran, all the way, wanted the Shiites to be united. They see the de-Ba'athification issue as the absolute number one issue that can help bring about that sort of reunification.

How about disenfranchised Sunni or Kurdish parties? Is a return to sectarian-fueled violence possible?

The possibility is there, the anger is there, but I think what has happened between 2005 and 2009 is that, partly with the help of the U.S. government, the Iraqi government has become a lot stronger. If there is dissent, it will more likely turn into repression by a Shiite-dominated government supported by Iran rather than revolt.

How might all of this affect American withdrawal plans? Should Washington be worried?

They should be worried, precisely because of those regional connections that we talked about earlier. I do get the sense that they are worried, but I'm a little bit concerned that they're not doing anything that is going to challenge these deeper systemic issues that we were talking about. The results we have from Biden's visit so far is that he more or less said, "We respect the Iraqi process on this; we have certain concerns, but we're not going to intervene." And it sounds as if he will kind of stand back and hope that the appeals process will yield some sort of less unfavorable outcome, that maybe some of these people will be reinstated and so on.

[The United States] should plant some sort of hope among the many Iraqis that have been intimidated by the decisions of this de-Ba'athification board.

But I fear that the deeper issues are not really being tackled by the Obama administration. By continuing to emphasize the ethno-sectarian logic also in its relationship with the Kurds, for example, Washington is extending support to all Iraqi leaders who want to exploit ethno-sectarian sub-identities at the expense of national ones, and this includes most prominently the Shiite Islamists that are close to Iran.

In other words, you suggest that Washington promote a more nationalist message, something Maliki has tried to do himself?

What I'm suggesting is that they should say more loudly that they see deep systemic problems in Iraq; they should say that they are watching these elections carefully; they should perhaps try and work for some sort of added international scrutiny with respect to these elections. In short, they should plant some sort of hope among the many Iraqis that have been intimidated by the decisions of this de-Ba'athification board and feel that there are problems with the whole political system in the country. But instead, Washington seems to have taken an extremely diplomatic approach, and that's just not going to send any signal at all. It seems as if Washington is supporting the current Iraqi system uncritically, which can easily produce voter apathy.

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