Could a Sunni Candidates Ban Imperil Iraq's Election?

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Karim Kadim / AP

From left: Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, prominent Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq and Sunni lawmaker Dhafir al-Ani confer at a rally in Baghdad on Jan. 16, 2009

Like the knee-jerk decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, the U.S. decision in 2003 to ban members of the former ruling Baath Party from joining the new Iraqi government was one of the biggest blunders of the early American occupation of post–Saddam Hussein Iraq. It instantly alienated an entire spectrum of civil servants and politicians, many of whom didn't have much loyalty to the old regime and could have been enlisted in the construction of a new government. And because many of them were Sunni, it helped widen the sectarian split in Iraqi society that eventually led to civil war.

Though U.S. policy subsequently shifted, and the Iraqi parliament has nominally watered down de-Baathification laws, the early effort to purge the old regime still haunts Iraqi politics. Last week, the Accountability and Justice Commission, the remnant of a de-Baathification committee set up by the Americans, banned 499 Iraqi politicians from running in the national parliamentary election on March 6. Not only does the move damage the fragile reconciliation process between Sunni and Shi'ite factions, but it also throws the country's democratic process into disarray just as a landmark election is scheduled to take place a few weeks from now.

Because several top Sunni leaders — including Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of a secular coalition that includes former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi — are among those now banned from running in the election, the move is being widely perceived by the country's Sunnis as an attempt by the Shi'ite-dominated government to limit the expected gains by Sunni parties in the coming contest. And it also appears that the targets of the commission are more than just Sunni politicians but also rivals of President Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters on the Accountability and Justice Commission (including its co-chair Ahmed Chalabi, the formerly exiled anti-Saddam activist who fell out with his allies in the Bush Pentagon and realigned himself with local Shi'ite politicians). The full list of banned politicians has yet to be published — the commission says that more names will soon be added — but leaks to the press have led to speculation that many firm fixtures in Iraqi politics, like the country's well-regarded Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, will now be banned.

Most Sunnis boycotted the last election, only to find themselves shut out of the country's subsequent political process while politicians with ties to Shi'ite militant groups took important posts. Civil war ensued after Shi'ite hard-liners sought payback for the years of oppression under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, while Sunni hard-liners took up arms against the new government. Luring Sunni parties back into politics was one of the cornerstones of the successful realignment of American policy toward Iraq, one that was reinforced by the surge of American forces in Baghdad. It led to a steady return of relative peace and security.

Despite the lull in violence, infighting has become par for the course among Iraqi politicians. A dispute between Arab and Kurdish legislators over voting lists in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk this past autumn nearly derailed plans for the entire national election, which had to be moved from its original date in January to March. That dispute was only settled with the direct intervention of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who made personal phone calls to top Kurdish leaders while the American ambassador rounded up votes in Baghdad.

Now American officials are heading back into the breach, and Biden back to the phones, hoping to find a compromise before the confrontation escalates and endangers the election itself. The U.S. — which has promised to withdraw all its combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31 and all remaining soldiers by 2011 — has tied the timing and pace of withdrawal to the successful completion of this election. Though it is unlikely that Sunni parties will again boycott the election or return to violent tactics, the parliament's sleight of hand could be a warning that however much the White House and the American public would like to close the tragic book on Operation Iraqi Freedom, a stable and democratic Iraq is far from mission accomplished.