Considerable confusion has erupted after news began leaking yesterday about a move to bar Salih al-Mutlak, a prominent secularist leader of the Hiwar front which is now part of the Iraqiyya movement and coalition, from standing as a candidate in the March parliamentary elections.
Much of the lack of clarity relates to the essentially transitional character of the Iraqi de-Baathification process. The old de-Baathification committee, created on the basis of ideas from Paul Bremer and headed since 2004 by Ali Faysal al-Lami – a Shiite political operator with particularly close ties to Iran – is supposed to be replaced by a new “justice and accountability board” pursuant to the “justice and accountability act” passed in early 2008. However, Iraqi parliamentarians have been wrangling about who should sit on the new board, with a government proposal for a Maliki ally (Walid al-Hilli) to take over its leadership so far having been rejected in parliament, partly due to internal Shiite opposition. In the meanwhile, Lami, apparently in dialogue with the “justice and accountability committee” of the Iraqi parliament, continues to wield considerable influence in issues relating to de-Baathification.
It is Lami and the committee that appear to be the driving force behind the latest proposal to exclude Mutlak. It may be useful, therefore, to have a brief look at the political affiliations of these individuals. Lami has ties to Ahmad Chalabi, the Sadrist breakaway faction Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (involved in the Qays al-Khazaali case and the abductions and murder of British hostages), and Iran. As for the parliamentary committee, it is headed by a Sadrist, with a Badr member as number two. The other members are from the PUK, Daawa and yet another Sadrist who together form the majority (hence, the “Watani” alliance is stronger on the committee than Daawa as far as the Shiites are concerned). Additionally, there is a minority of two secularists on the committee, plus Rashid al-Azzawi who represents Tawafuq (and who on some issues may well find common ground with the Shiite Islamists rather than with the secularists).
The main problem with the proposal to exclude Mutlak is of course its abrupt, ad hoc nature, and the fact that it emerges in the middle of a period of transition for the de-Baathification bureaucracy. Firstly, why has not this been dealt with earlier? The fact is that Mutlak and his party have been an important part of Iraqi democracy for four years, and that they have played a key role on numerous occasions in furthering the democratic process – for example when they along with other opposition parties demanded a timeline for local elections when the provincial powers law was adopted in February 2008. Mutlak has also been crucial in keeping the issue of Kirkuk on the agenda as a question of national concern, and was talking about “putting Iraq first” when this kind of approach was very unfashionable back in 2006 (of course, in a very predictable way, the Western mainstream media is still today obsessed with him as a “Sunni”). Thus, the very sudden singling out of him as a potential neo-Baathist (ostensibly on the basis of “new documents” that, of course, have not been made public) smacks of a highly politicised decision that can only weaken the public trust in the democratic process. With the exception of some Sadrists (especially locally in Amara), it took more than two weeks before the other Shiite Islamists began reacting in an audible fashion to the Iranian occupation of al-Fakka, and one cannot help wonder whether this latest move may reflect a certain panic over the way this issue has played into the hands of nationalists like Mutlak. Conversely, Mutlak’s bloc, Iraqiyya, has once more highlighted its non-sectarian, Iraqi nationalist orientation by promptly and strongly rejecting slander by Saudi clerics against the (Shiite) Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
More fundamentally, the question of “selective de-Baathification” comes on the agenda here in a big way. It is a historical fact that Shiites and Sunnis alike cooperated with the old regime in their millions, and it was for example Shiite tribes that cracked down on the “Shiite” rebellion in the south in 1991. Nonetheless, the exiles who returned to Iraq after 2003 have tried to impose an artificial narrative in which the legacy of pragmatic cooperation with the Baathist regime is not dealt with in a systematic and neutral fashion as such; instead one singles out political opponents (often Sunnis) as “Baathists” and silently co-opt political friends (especially if they happen to be Shiites) without mentioning their Baathist ties at all. The result is a hypocritical and sectarian approach to the whole question of de-Baathification that will create a new Iraq on shaky foundations. (For example, the Sadrists have been in the lead in the aggressive de-Baathification campaign, yet it is well known that many Sadrists in fact had Baathist ties in the past.)
The proposal concerning Mutlak now apparently goes to the Iraqi elections commission (IHEC), which is supposed to be more independent, but whose members were in reality also elected on the basis of loyalties to political parties – and with an even poorer representation for secular Iraqis (only one of the nine commissioners is believed to have ties to Iraqiyya). This is going to be a test case not only for the IHEC but for the whole Iraqi political process.