Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Folly of Attempted Rehabilitation

Sam Dagher has an interesting story on the front page of the New York Times today regarding the rehabilitation of the Ba’athists. There are several problems with this account, but I’ll give Mr. Dagher the benefit of the doubt as to why an otherwise well-informed reporter fell into such misinformed snags. Regardless of what the intentions of those who leaked the story to him were, the write-up suffers from a failure to contextualize the subject, and provide the proper legal framework over the issue.

With some hyperbole, Dagher claims that the failure to rehabilitate the Ba’athists “could become one of the biggest obstacles to stability in Iraq.” As Nir Rosen’s recent piece suggests, that may be a case of much ado about nothing.

Dagher frames the story around Lt. Gen. Raad al-Hamdani, but fails to identify his past affiliation, which was with the Republican Guard, the elite corps tasked with defending the regime, primarily against internal enemies. Perhaps this translated transcript of an interview with Hamdani conducted by Rusiya A-Yaum (Russia Today) last April sheds light on Hamdani’s intransigence when it comes to his own unrepentant past in the service of the regime. Note how he reverentially refers to Qusay Saddam Hussein, adding “may God bless his soul.”

Hamdani was one of the candidates for the post of Minister of Defense put forward by the Sunni bloc in 2006.

Raad al-Hamdani

Ostensibly, the Maliki government opened talks with Hamdani so as to broker the rehabilitation of former Iraqi Army officers, as part of the Justice and Reconciliation Law (passed in January 2008). Dagher is patently mistaken when he claims that the law has “not been put into effect”; earlier this month, the Iraqi government signed off on Order 34 that pertains to the law, reabsorbing thousands of officers and soldiers into the Iraqi armed services, and placing many other thousands, quite a number of them high-ranking officers, on the retirement payroll—which was their demand in the first place. All in all, there are probably 15,000 beneficiaries of this order, the vast majority of them Sunnis who served under Saddam. The NYTimes piece makes no mention of this relevant milestone.

Hamdani, encouraged by the Force Strategic Engagement Cell, had expanded his portfolio (and demands) to incorporate the rehabilitation of the Ba’ath Party, in its entirety. The article only clarifies what Hamdani’s demands are towards the end of the piece, without fleshing them out. This is where his fool’s errand was stymied with political and legal realities.

Dagher fails to report on the past failures of the Force Strategic Engagement Cell, which he describes as “a secretive unit” of American and British officials. Talisman Gate had done so, with what I believe to be ground-breaking accuracy, back in November 2007. So, it took no extraordinary powers of deduction to conclude that the ‘Cell’ would entangle Hamdani in yet another of its follies.

It should be noted that the two gentlemen representing Izzet al-Douri who met with Hamdani two months ago, according to the NYTimes article, were the same ones making the rounds among Iraqi politicians (…they were a trio back then) as early as October, trying to establish communication channels between Douri and influential actors on the political scene. It struck several observers as odd and dangerous that these gentlemen had independent access into the Green Zone, even though they were there to arrange for face-to-face meetings with al-Douri in an area near al-Khalis in Diyala Province. In other words, Hamdani’s channel is not unique, and the same certainly goes for whatever channel he has with the Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed faction (sometimes based in Hasaka, Syria) for which any Tom, Dick and Harry seems able to speak for.

The article implies that the anti-Ba’athist backlash was driven by an Iranian agenda, whereas anyone who had been paying attention would have understood that it was voter-driver. Maliki was doing damage control after his initial forays into reconciling with the Ba’athists were faced with widespread rejection among his constituency. Dagher fails to explain that the ‘bygone-are-bygones’ approach when it comes to the Ba’ath is deeply resented among the vast majority of Iraqis. Maliki backed-off because it would cost him votes, and this is, after all, an election year.

Political context should matter, and the article is hobbled by adopting an extremist Ba’athist narrative that has it that all anti-rehabilitation efforts are orchestrated by Iran (…sometimes I feel Dagher needs to overcompensate for his ‘suspect’ Shia Lebanese roots). The Iraqi voter matters, no matter what the NYTimes editorial line says.

Finally, the piece ends with a quote from a Ba’athist commander in hiding who claims that whatever constitutional impediments there may be to rehabilitation can be overcome with a simple re-write:
“…if the government were to become serious about reconciliation, it would seek to amend the Constitution and let the party resume its role in public life, like the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“The Constitution is not a holy book — it can be amended,” he said.
It isn’t as simple as that, folks. Article 7 of the constitution banning the ‘Saddamist Ba’ath’ falls under Section One, which, according to article 122 cannot be amended until 2018 (at the earliest, only after ‘two parliamentary election cycles’), and only then after surmounting the obstacles of a two thirds majority of parliament, followed by a national referendum, followed by a presidential approval.

In other words, it ain’t gonna happen.


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