It is easy to understand the dilemma for Iraqiyya leaders who gathered in Baghdad over the weekend to decide on the question of participation in the 7 March elections. The outcome was not unequivocal: Whilst they will resume campaigning, Iraqiyya still has complaints concerning the procedure and will continue to monitor the situation, including the fate of a query to the higher judicial supreme council by the speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie of Tawafuq, regarding the legality of exclusions under article 7 of the constitution. Several candidates who were previously affiliated with the Hiwar front that was led by Salih al-Mutlak before it merged with Wifaq – some reports say as many as 75 individuals – still talk openly about a boycott. This all comes against the backdrop of the latest “elections campaigning” trend: Increasing ad hoc and vigilante de-Baathification in the Iraqi governorates, with stricter criteria coming into effect by the day. If this tendency continues, Iraqis will eventually need to have lived most of their lives in foreign capitals in order to be considered sufficiently “clean” for public service in Iraq!
Before they met in Baghdad, Iraqiyya had been hoping that there would be some kind of reaction by the international community against the almost boundless highhandedness by the de-Baathification board, which has taken the lead in excluding candidates that were seen as challengers to the Shiite Islamist list of two of the board’s dominant personalities, Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi. This, it was hoped, could in turn both stimulate turnout and make it easier for the secularists and nationalists to return to the political process as a unified front. However, during the visit to Washington by Ambassador Chris Hill last week it increasingly became clear that this kind of warning from the United States is unlikely to be forthcoming. In fact, as shown by the annotated excerpts below from Hill’s press briefing on 17 February, Washington is going surprisingly far in the direction of actually ascribing legitimacy to the recent de-Baathification antics, and this absence of a clearer American counter-position at least goes some way towards explaining the continued ambivalence among some Iraqiyya members with regard to participation in the upcoming elections.
AMBASSADOR HILL: …I think anyone who follows Iraq knows that there are twists and turns to any destination in Iraq. Certainly, de-Baathification was a major issue and a very tough issue, a very emotional issue, but I think we’ve gotten through that issue. The campaign has really started in earnest. There are campaign placards all over every surface in the country, it seems, right now. There are some 6,172 candidates. There are 18.9 million registered voters. There are 300,000 poll station workers. There are 50,000 polling stations spread over 9,000 polling centers….
So the problem has been solved already? Really?? Hill’s focus on placards and statistics reveals a dangerous preference for making the façade tidy instead of taking a critical approach to the real democratic content of the process.
I think everyone is aware of the complexity of putting together coalition governments. At the end of the day, I think we will be looking at a government that has a Shia representation, that it does indeed have Sunni representation, and will also have Kurdish representation. Now, what particular configuration, which parties those three identities will be represented, well, that will be up to the Iraqi voters on March 7th.
Saddam also had Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds represented. Sectarianism in Iraq is a little more subtle than this and Hill just gets it wrong if he thinks this a puzzle where can he check three boxes and then relax. By the way this whole “Sunnis and Shiites” paradigm reached a higher stage of ridiculousness yesterday as AP declared Hiwar as the “Sunni wing” of Iraqiyya, with Ayad Allawi’s Wifaq as its “Shiite wing”!
I would be cautious about comparing these elections to those in 2005. You’ll recall in 2005 we had a Sunni boycott. There are no signs whatsoever of a boycott by any of the communities at this time. In fact, all of the communities have been urging their voters to – their members to get out and vote.
So it is sufficient to the US to see some “Sunnis” show up for a vote? What about the question of turnout among secular Iraqis?
But we don’t see that this issue of excluding Baathist candidates is one that is leading to violence. Frankly, they were able to come together and work out a solution, and I think it’s a solution that most people are living with.
So as long as there is no outright violence the US will be happy with the elections no matter what?
AMBASSADOR HILL: I think it’s important to understand that there are candidates who are unhappy at having been on the list, but there was a process by which they were able to appeal, there was a sequestered panel of judges from the cassation court that looked at these cases. In some cases, they ruled that the people should be able to stand for office; in others, they ruled against it.
Well, two weeks ago that court postponed all the cases and wanted to ask critical questions about the legitimacy of the accountability and justice board; one week later it dismissed all the appeals save 26. Not terribly reassuring as far as the question of political interference with the work of the judiciary is concerned?
QUESTION: Good to see you in person. Yesterday, General Odierno accused two Iraqi officials – let me read the names – Ali Faisal al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who were both key members of the Accountability and Justice Commission, of being clearly influenced by Iran. I’m wondering if you agree with General Odierno’s comments, and are you concerned with Iran’s influence over this process concerning the candidates and the election in general?
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah, I absolutely agree with General Odierno on this. And absolutely, these gentlemen are affected by – are certainly under the influence of Iran. These were people, or in the case of Chalabi, he was named by the CPA administrator, Ambassador Bremer, back in ’03 as the head of the de-Baathification Committee. It was a committee that went out of existence two years ago, replaced by the Accountability and Justice Committee. Everyone else understood that they – that that would – that their terms expired with the expiration of the committee, except for Mr. Chalabi, who assumed by himself the role of maintaining his – a position in a new committee to which he was never named.
There are two problems with the way Odierno and Hill address the Lami/Chalabi dimension. Firstly, they tend to isolate these two persons from the wider political alliance in which they take part – the Iraqi National Alliance, which was constructed in Iran in May 2009 with Chalabi as a key mediator between the Sadrists and ISCI. Hence to reduce the Iranian influence in Iraq to two individuals involves a severe underestimation. Secondly, the comments by Odierno and Hill merely express frustration; they are not using the dubious activities of Lami/Chalabi to create leverage with respect to the democratic quality of the upcoming elections by saying what will follow if the elections are fraudulent.
The issue of de-Baathification was – came up in the context of the actual election process being underway. It became a very emotionally charged issue. I think Americans need to understand that if you’re an Iraqi, very few people are indifferent to the issue of de-Baathification. After all Baathists pretty much destroyed that country, destroyed many families, destroyed many hopes in Iraq. So understandably, people are very concerned about ensuring that there is – that Article 7 of the constitution is lived up to and that there is action against Baathists.
In this paragraph, Hill actually goes as far as embracing the jurisprudence of Ahmad Chalabi. The idea of using article 7 of the constitution to exclude candidates from the elections is flawed – primarily because the law supposed to implement it has never been passed and secondarily because the article also covers sectarianism and racism which, if made applicable, would raise the question of a host of possible exclusions including key Shiite Islamist and Kurdish parties. A query by Ayad al-Samarraie to the higher judicial council concerning the legality of article 7 exclusions is still pending; hopefully someone will follow through on this since there is no way the de-Baathification board can get around this issue if an attempt is made to address it in a purely legal way.
I met with the sheikhs in Anbar who are, by and large, Sunni sheikhs. I met with other sheikhs in – tribal sheikhs in Baghdad. I had them over to my home for lunch. And the Sunni tribal sheikhs all said that they are very much in a get-out-the-vote mood. So we do not have a problem as of now in terms of Sunni nonparticipation.
And Vice-President Joe Biden once met with “Sunni sheikhs” who believed in a Sunni federal region “in their hearts” but dared not say so publicly…
AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, I think there are political reconciliation issues across the board. I mean, it is – I think it’s something that we try to be helpful with the Iraqis. But I think increasingly we’re seeing the Iraqis try to deal with these issues. And to see how the – some of the Shia parties reached out to the Sunni during the election law issue, where we had Shia and Sunni in the same room working on the law – in fact, working off the same piece of paper and trying to make adjustments on that piece of paper, showed that the election process, difficult as it is, is making people work together. So I think that – I think elections, if they’re well done, can be a source of political reconciliation.
You had Sunnis (Tawafuq) working with the Shiites in 2005 as well. The problem is, as long as they work within the confines of narrow sectarian frameworks this will be theatre by figureheads instead of sustainable national reconciliation.
More generally speaking, the remarks by Ambassador Hill seem to indicate refusal by Washington to challenge Chalabi and Lami in a meaningful way beyond a little public bluster. That kind of attitude will lead many Iraqis to once more revert to the widespread conspiracy theory to the effect that the US is using their country as a giant dangling carrot in its dealings with Iran, searching for a great bargain or safqa instead of having Iraqi reconciliation issues as a number one priority. Depressing as that scenario is, it might at least help Iraqiyya make a decision on participation: More than ever before it seems clear that no support from the international community is likely to materialise; only a massive voter turnout on 7 March can now reverse the negative trend in Iraq and prevent the country from falling prey to rapacious regional forces.