It is not only suicide bombers that make up the problem of terror in today’s Iraq. Also the new republic itself is looking more Jacobin by the day.
After the French revolution, Maximilien de Robespierre in 1793 famously concentrated almost all power in a committee called Comité de salut public or the committee of public safety. Until its dissolution in 1794, this body fought a relentless war against real and imagined enemies of internal and external origin. Its preferred method for dealing with dissent was the guillotine; its year in power became known as “the reign of terror”.
In today’s Iraq, another committee is becoming increasingly important at the highest level of government: the de-Baathification board. Its procedures are different from those followed by Robespierre and his allies, but their impact is very similar: An atmosphere of fear designed to intimidate political opponents, increasingly on the pattern of what is going on in neighbouring Iran.
Developments over the past days have only underlined the extent to which the whole de-Baathification process has become politicised and devoid of any legal guarantees. After having previously presented a list of 511 banned candidates, Ali al-Lami of the de-Baathification board recently announced that a second batch of some 700 additional names was on its way to the independent election commission (IHEC). He also declared that the outcome of the ongoing appeals process for the banned candidates would not automatically mean reinstatement: That decision was for the IHEC to make, and would not necessarily follow the advice of the seven-member appeals court panel that has recently been put together. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliamentary committee that supposedly exercises some kind of oversight over the de-Baathification board has suddenly declared that it is looking into the details of some of the appeal cases, after having initially given its stamp of approval for the first round of exclusions. In sum, it appears as if the idea of due process has been merrily abandoned in favour of an impromptu procedure that is being made up as we move along. Under CPA order 97 – the only legal authority to which these forces now bother to make reference – everything seems possible.
Just to underline the capriciousness of what is going on, late last night, Hamdiya al-Husayni, an IHEC commissioner who is close to the Daawa party, announced that a second batch of 57 names of persons that would be banned from running as candidates had been received from the de-Baathification board, incidentally meaning that around 650 names from Lami’s assessment on Sunday apparently had gone lost somewhere along the way. The commission has also announced separately that Zafir al-Ani, a breakaway leader of Tawafuq, has been banned, presumably reflecting the outcome of his appeal (Ani’s case, alongside that of Mutlak, was reportedly due to be reconsidered by the parliamentary sub-committee “today or tomorrow”; that has presumably been called off). Finally, the IHEC has declared that campaigning for the elections is to start on 7 February, thereby leaving no more than 4 weeks to the parties ahead of the vote, and opening the question of what will happen to any appeals related to the most recent batch of exclusions. (The idea has always been that campaigning will start when candidate lists have been printed and one would assume therefore that no campaigning takes place until the appeals process has been duly exhausted; however between today and Sunday, much of Iraq will effectively be closed down due to the Arbain Shiite pilgrimage marking the end of the 40 days mourning period for Imam Hussein.)
These infractions of basic legal principles notwithstanding, key players in the international community appear to be lining up to give their tacit backing to the de-Baathification committee. The latest addition is the head of UNAMI in Iraq, Ad Melkert, who in a recent meeting with Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI described the de-Baathification process as one based on Iraqi constitutional criteria. Previously, Vice-President Joe Biden expressed his support for the Iraqi process, followed by President Barack Obama who voiced general support for the Iraqi government in his State of the Union address. One can get the impression that Washington could end up sitting idly by, simply hoping that a minimum number of reinstatements of banned candidates will be delivered by the Iraqi system itself prior to the elections.
Election propaganda for the Iraqi National Alliance from the Buratha news agency warning about the return of the Baath
Perhaps most dangerous in all of this is the idea, held by a considerable number of influential think tankers in the West, that this is all a case of a misunderstanding and that most of the key players in Iraq in reality do not support the de-Baathification board – an idea that seemed to gain prominence not least after the recent visit to Washington by ISCI’s Adil Abd al-Mahdi. This view is deeply misleading, for two reasons. Firstly, it goes without saying that if the leading parties in Iraq really disapproved of the actions of Messieurs Lami and Chalabi, they could simply have dismissed them by a parliamentary vote. Secondly, when sweet talk by Abd al-Mahdi in Washington is translated as disapproval by ISCI of the de-Baathification process, this is just plain wrong. For one thing, leading ISCI media like the Buratha news agency and the Forat television channel have been pumping out anti-Baathist propaganda for months, creating a sectarian dimension to the issue by associating the potential rise of Salih al-Mutlak and other banned candidates with an upsurge of violence against Shiites and Shiite mosques. But even the polished Adala newspaper that is owned by Abd al-Mahdi himself publishes this stuff up front. For example, it has recently given ample space to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is part of their electoral alliance, and his defence of the actions of the de-Baathification committee. When Western commentators focus on reassurances offered in Washington they simply miss the bigger picture and the systematic attempt by the Shiite Islamist parties to have de-Baathification as a defining issue ahead of the 7 March elections.
From Al-Adala, the newspaper of Adil Abd al-Mahdi
After the Jacobins, can Iraq stomach a Thermidorian reaction, a Directory, and a Bonaparte? President Barack Obama, a Nobel laureate, should not leave behind a situation with this sort of violent potential.