Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Why Ad Hoc De-Baathification Will Derail the Process of Democratisation in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 8 January 2010 12:31

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.

19 Responses to “Why Ad Hoc De-Baathification Will Derail the Process of Democratisation in Iraq”

  1. Wladimir said

    What’s your source for Shia striking down Shia rebellion. Wasn’t it the Republican Guard that was still intact?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    If you look at the regime newspapers at the time they are full of telegrams from tribes in the south reminding Saddam of the role they played in clamping down on the insurgency (Al-Qadisiyya 7 November 1991 is one example). Dina Khoury and Amatzia Baram have done work on this. But you need only read lexicons like Majmuat al-ashair al-iraqiyya by Thamir al-Amiri (published 1992–95) to get an idea of the extent of regime interaction with the southern tribes. Wasn’t there a similar phenomenon in the north with lots of Kurds cooperating with the regime (and derogatorily referred to as “jash” by their detractors if I remember correctly), if perhaps not in such high numbers?

  3. amagi said

    How is the street reacting to this news? Also, the way you discuss it here you make it sound like a proposal, but the way I’ve heard it talked about elsewhere makes it sound like a declaration.

    Here I thought after the Kirkuk issue was put to bed (at least for purposes of the election) and a voting date was set, the only major surprises to fear would be in the form of high-level assassinations. Looks like I was wrong once again. What do you think the probable outcomes could be from this? Nobody can predict the future, of course, but maybe you have some ideas?

  4. Reidar Visser said

    It’s certainly not a final decision yet. What we have, I think, is a communication from the “justice and accountability” committee to the IHEC on the subject. My impression is that the final decision will rest with the IHEC and/or the constitutional court, and nothing will be known for sure until next week, at the earliest. Note the form of the Iraqiyya declaration on the subject: “IF Mutlak is barred, then etc…”.

    So far, Allawi has threatened a boycott while some say Hashemi will run regardless. Without Iraqiyya participating the elections will be farcical.

  5. “Without Iraqiyya participating the elections will be farcical”

    I strongly agree, but the alternative lineup is not without its dangers: Maliki-Pro Iranian INA-Pro US (Kurdish) coalition vs. Iraqiyya and maybe Bolani?
    To my mind, the proposal of barring Mutlak is a fear reaction, it shows how insecure Lami and his backers are.

  6. Reidar Visser said

    We whould not forget that less than a year ago, Maliki was negotiating with none other than Mutlak (but quit after ISCI attacked him for “dealing with Baathists”). I still think it is conceivable that at the time of post-election coalition-forming Maliki may rediscover his centralist ideology, sack some of his more paranoid advisers, and build an alliance with other centralists in the parliament. Maybe at some point he will realise that the Kurds will demand Kirkuk in return for a deal to support him, and that many in the “Watani” coalition are after all decentralisers who simply want to get rid of him.

  7. Joel Wing said


    Saddam actually turned to the tribes during the Iran-Iraq War to get recruits. In return he gave them special privileges. After the Gulf War he turned to them for support even more and they got wide ranging powers. This was both Sunni ones, mixed Sunni-Shiites, Shiite tribes, and even Kurdish ones. They basically gained their own little fiefs across the country, got weapons from the government, and in return were to provide extra security in their area. It was a sign of the weakness of Saddam’s power and the state.

  8. Joel Wing said

    McClatchy Newspapers’ Inside Iraq blog was the first place that I saw this story and they too said that the Election Commission will have the final say on this ban.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    There is no doubt that the IHEC will be involved, because it has made a public statement to the effect that no request for banning Mutlak has been received “thus far”, hence indicating its expectation of becoming involved. It also says any decision made by the IHEC can be appealed to the courts.

    In general, Iraqi media have been somewhat clearer than Western ones with respect to who made this initiative. In Iraqi press reports, one gets the impression that Lami and the board is the driving force; however the head of the parliamentary committee (Falah Shanshal, a Sadrist) has appeared extremely supportive of the move, to the point where the distinction between the board and the committee became blurred for example in one NYT report. However, other committee members, such as Izzat al-Shabandar (a secularist), have criticised the initiative of the board and indicated they will talk to Shanshal and the rest of the committee once parliament reconvenes (next week).

  10. Salah said

    Joel Wing wrote Saddam actually turned to the tribes during the Iran-Iraq War to get recruits

    This not correct.

    Iraq or regime was not in need for recruits at Iran Iraq war, there was compulsory national military service in place and when the rule of law was good and every one respected them, moreover Iraqis as all saw Iran and Khomeini threatened their national security they did fight Iran on that basis.

    The regime some how lost his direction after 1991 war (Kuwiat Invasion) then the regime went to get help, in fact not help as such but they threatened if they can control their folk from uprising against the regime they will hanged, so there was que of new tribe leaders who the labelled “1991 tribe leaders” who played by the regime to keep their area save and quite.

    Maliki recent meeting with tribes leaders is dictating as old regime policies and most of them from “1991 tribe leaders”, more that that Paul Bremer III also met with most of those who are from 1991 tribe leader to get US support early days of invasion

  11. R said

    I think you have to draw a line between those Baathists who were deeply embedded within the regime through and throughout (that is Salah Mutlaq) and those that served the regime’s opportunistic enterprises at any given point (that is the Shia tribes, Kurdhish Jash, etc), and therefore not deep-rooted regime loyalists.

    The Justice Commission’s list also includes Kurdish Saddam loyalist individuals and parties, like the Kurdish Iraqi Freedom and Justice party led by Arshad Al-Zaibari. It is not, therefore, a selective attack on strictly “Sunni” groups.

  12. Reidar Visser said

    But should it not be possible for people like Salih al-Mutlak to re-integrate in Iraqi politics? Some say he left the Baath party as far back as 1977. And at any rate, just being a party member is not a crime, and that’s according to the constitution. Has he not contributed something positive to the “new Iraq” through actions such as supporting the timeline for local elections that was adopted in February 2008 (together with Sadrists, Fadila, Iraqiyya and Tawafuq, and against ISCI/PUK/KDP)?

  13. Salah said

    ideas from Paul Bremer and headed since 2004 by Ali Faysal al-Lami – a Shiite political operator with particularly close ties to Iran
    Just some more history with debaathification, Paul Bremer as a head of CPA issued , issued two sweeping orders in May 2003, one outlawed the Baath Party and dismissed all senior members from their government posts; the other dissolved Iraq’s 500,000-member military and intelligence services.
    In April 2004, Bremer announced that debaathification had been “poorly implemented” and applied “unevenly and unjustly,” and said he supported a plan to allow “vetted senior officers from the former regime” back into the military services. At the time, the Iraqi insurgency was picking up speed, Bremer dissolved the Supreme National Debaathification Commission, but the panel, with support from some members of the interim government, continues to operate. Despite Bremer’s order to disband the commission, Chalabi controled and used Supreme National Debaathification Commission very viscously. He argued that, because the commission is enshrined in Iraq’s interim constitution, Bremer did not have the authority to shut it down.

    Iraqi nationalist orientation by promptly and strongly rejecting slander by Saudi clerics against the (Shiite) Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

    Reidar, There is some talk that the timing of the Saudi clerics also the Irans FM visit to Iraq have some thing with baning Al-Mutlak.

    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.

    This right and precisely what happened, but I would add more to it that the Baathist Kurds who worked with old regime are not subjected to debaathification, in fact most of those who were with old regime have kept if not control key positions in today Kurdistan government.

    Finally Struan Stevenson MEP has represented Scotland in the European Parliament, have spoken about the banning and he regretted, as its not healthy and it’s remind us with dictatorship and theocrasy regimes like Iranians regime.

  14. Salah said

    Things escalating here, new dimension threaten Maliki from promoting himself for next election.

    طالب محامٍ عراقي بمنع ترشح رئيس الوزراء نوري المالكي للانتخابات العراقية المقررة في السابع من مارس/آذار المقبل، بناء على شكوى كان أقامها ضده.

    وقال المحامي بديع عارف عزت إنه كان تقدم بشكوى لدى قاضي التحقيق في منطقة الكرخ ضد المالكي يتهمه فيها بالمسؤولية عن عمليات قتل في العراق

  15. bb said

    When you think about it, it’s surprising that the Iranian puppet shia exiles and their opportunistic power grabbing Kurdish cohorts ever allowed Mutlaq to contest elections at all? How did it come about?

  16. Wladimir said

    If we look to legitimacy, we can also look to other regime changes. A lot of countries barred supporters of the former regime from political functions. See Eastern EU countries for instance, after the fall of the Soviet Union and many others. Point is that it could threaten the political stability of Iraq. It’s not about legitimacy, but about realism. The same pragmatism was used in Germany after WII, to keep the stability.

  17. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, that may seem like an intriguing question today, but I think we need to remember the historical context. Back in 2004, many Sunnis and Iraqi nationalists were not interested in taking part in politics at all and preferred the armed resistance. Mutlak made the courageous step of taking part in the democratic process despite being totally opposed to many of the ideas of the forces that dominated back then. Those forces, in turn, were happy to see some of their opponents at least preferring parliamentary politics to armed conflict. Also we need to remember that the US & Khalilzad at the time were extremely concerned about the lack of what they called “Sunni participation”, and on this issue probably exercised at least some pressure on ISCI and the Kurds.

    Mutlak subsequently played a key role in keeping Iraqi nationalism and centralism alive and Maliki actually borrowed many of his ideas before his win in the last local elections, which is why it would be particularly ironic and indeed shameful if he were banned now. We need to remember that 2006 was the golden age of Galbraith, Biden and Hakim and their ideas about an Iraq partitioned on an ethno-sectarian basis. Whether you agree or disagree with him on other issues, Mutlak was among the forces that kept the idea of a unified Iraq alive. Of course, Iran and some Shiite Islamists much prefer Tawafuq since their greater focus on specifically Sunni demands in practice sustains the ethno-sectarian definition of the Iraqi political system and by implication perpetuates Shiite domination. Mutlak is dangerous to them because he talks about issues that appeal to all Iraqis, regardless of sect.

    Wladimir, exaggerated, purist exclusion can also create problems. Many would say post-Franco Spain was a better way of handling things, and some maintain that the reason the transition was smooth in Germany was that de-Nazification in practice was not enforced as systematically as had been planned. But I guess the main point here is that Iraq has already decided that de-Baathification is to be focused on specific crimes and not party membership in general.

  18. ali said

    Reidaer, what’s Mutlaq’s position on the conduct law, if he’s for the caretaker government position then could he’s banning be linked to this?

  19. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, that’s an interesting idea, but I think there is a different dynamic involved in this case. Both the Sadrists and Hakim have been expressing an interest in the caretaker-government idea; they are also among the loudest supporters of the move to exclude Mutlak.

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