The notion that post-war Iraq is becoming a pluralistic democracy was dispelled last week when the de-Baathification committee recommended that 15 political parties and candidates be barred from standing in the March 7 parliamentary election. The reason given for the ban is that these parties are descendants of or covers for the ousted and outlawed Baath of Saddam Hussein.
Whether this proposal is accepted or not by the election commission, it is clear that the US-installed Shiite-Kurdish rulers of Iraq do not intend to share power with anyone else.
The de-Baathification committee - renamed the Justice and Accountability Board - made this recommendation although its chief target, Saleh Mutlaq, was cleared to stand in Iraq’s 2005 election and his National Dialogue Front won 11 seats in the 275-member assembly.
Ali Lami, head of the panel, claims new information reveals that Mutlaq “is a Baathist and nominated himself as a Baathist.”
Mutlaq dismissed the allegation as “rubbish”. He left the Baath party in 1977 before Saddam seized power, established a large farming business in the south, and made a great deal of money. His supporters point out that Lami has close relations with pro-Iranian factions and only retained his post because there was no agreement on a replacement. It may be significant that the new charge against Mutlaq surfaced after Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki paid a visit to Baghdad.
The banning bid is the culmination of a systematic effort by Shiite religious parties and Kurdish separatists to exclude Sunnis, secularists, Christians and others from a role in the governance of the country.
Since he assumed office in the spring of 2006, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has steadfastly resisted US pressure to reconcile with these excluded communities although this is essential if the country is to attain national unity.
Maliki, his Dawa party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and the movement loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr (Sadrists) are parties rooted in political Shiism, which have close ties with Iran.
These parties are prepared to tolerate the Iraqi Islamic Party (IPP) because it, too, is a party based on religion. But they are not ready to contend with parties and politicians that espouse the creeds of secularism and Iraqi nationalism. The Kurds go along with the Shiite religious parties because they reject Iraqi nationalism, which opposes Kurdish separatism.
The Bush administration drew up a list of more than a dozen tasks for Maliki to perform with the aim of achieving national reconciliation. But he did not carry out what was expected of him. He did not ease restrictions on former Baathists who had been banned from jobs in the civil service, the army and educational system. Instead, the de-Baathification committee tightened banning orders.
Maliki did not deliver on monthly salaries and jobs promised by the US military to Sunnis and tribesmen who joined the 100,000-strong “Awakening”, or “Sons of Iraq”, movement which helped contain Al Qaeda and insurgent groups. Instead, Maliki stopped their salaries and arrested or executed commanders and soldiers. His actions have alienated many Sunnis and may have prompted some to join - or rejoin - the insurgency and Al Qaeda.
If parties representing Sunnis, secularists and others are prevented from participating in the parliamentary elections, many more disillusioned and disaffected Iraqis may follow suit.
Although the stand adopted by the de-Baathification committee conforms to a trend, the religious Shiite-Kurdish separatist alliance has self-serving political reasons for excluding parties on the banned list.
Last October, the main secular nationalist parties formed an electoral alliance called the Iraq National Movement (INM). The prime movers are Mutlaq and interim Premier Iyad Allawi, a Shiite who established Al Iraqiya List.
Two other senior figures who joined the INM are Vice President Tariq Al Hashemi, formerly with the IIP, and Deputy Prime Minister Rafie al-Essawi.
The INM has launched a secular appeal to Iraqis who are fed up with the sectarian and ethnic parties that have run the show since the US occupation. The movement denounces Kurdish claims to Kirkuk and Iranian influence in the government.
Mutlaq has sharply criticized Maliki’s failure to denounce last month’s brief incursion by Iranian Revolutionary Guards into al-Fakka oilfield on the Iraq-Iran border.
Before the banning order was issued, the INM expected to secure more seats than the Kurdish bloc and hold the balance of power between Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition and the United Iraqi Alliance formed by SCIRI and the Sadrists.
An Iraqi source suggests that the INM could name the prime minister and that Mutlaq could become president in place of Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. The informant considers the ban a “preemptive strike” designed to “finish off” secular nationalists who are popular in Mosul and the north where nationalists defeated Kurdish candidates in last year’s provincial elections.
If Mutlaq’s party is eliminated, the INM will become a marginalized faction. Aware that this would be its fate if the de-Baathification committee is successful, Allawi has threatened to pull out of the contest. A boycott by Allawi, Mutlaq, Hashemi and Essawi would undermine the credibility of the election, polarize the country, and torpedo claims that Iraq’s post-war Shiite and Kurdish rulers intend to create a pluralistic democratic system.
Joost Hilterman, an Iraq specialist at the International Crisis Group, said that the proposed ban “is a terrible move.... The elections are for Sunnis [and secularists] the make-or-break event for their participation in the state of Iraq”.
*Published in the JORDAN TIMES on Jan. 14, 2009.