To De-Baath or Not To De-Baath
Watching the plotline of the forthcoming Iraqi elections unfold is like watching a soap opera: feigned drama, unforeseen twists, and all of it must-see, gripping entertainment. Personally, I am quite enjoying it.
In the latest episode, the Accountability and Justice Commission (…the reincarnation of the Higher National Commission for De-Baathification) did its job by naming 511 candidates for parliament as being ineligible to run according to Iraqi law. Standard operating procedure if one follows the Iraqi Constitution and the such.
But the shrillness and misinterpretation of U.S.-based analysts and commentators of what happened—nothing unusual—compelled me to make a few things clear. So here’s my brief interpretation of the plot twist before I get back to watching the show:
-The would-be candidates are being barred from running according to a new law that was passed by the sitting parliament. They are not being judged according to the old De-Baath law that was passed in January 2004 by the Iraqi Governing Council. The new law stipulated the formation of a new ‘Accountability and Justice’ Commission (AJC) to take over the duties of implementing the new law. Since parliament and the executive branch never got around to appointing a new chairman for the new commission, who in turn was supposed to suggest a new bureaucratic structure for the AJC, the old De-Baath structure, with Ahmad Chalabi as its chairman, is still in charge of running day-to-day operations for the implementation of the new law. Barring illegal candidacies is part of those day-to-day operations. Myself, I had qualms about messing around with the old De-Baath law that, being a hawk on these issues, I found to be already excessively lenient. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new law could be interpreted by the legal authorities to bar more Ba’athists and former security and military personnel than its precursor, so that turned me into a supporter.
-The ‘Anti-Baath’ campaign is an election gimmick. I am very sensitive to anything to do with Ba’athists, but even I am convinced that Ba’athists no longer represent a strategic threat to the ‘New Iraq’, not even minimally. All I want the law to do now is to shame the Ba’athists for their past. I am disinterested in barring Ba’athists because I may harbor a fear a return to dictatorship, or watch them undermine the New Iraq. They are too weak and broken for that to ever happen again. The state, the New Iraq, is too hearty and strong to be undermined. In this respect, I can be amused rather than goaded by the Anti-Ba’ath campaign. I see it for what it is: a vote earner. The Iraqi National Alliance (…the latest incarnation of the UIA parliamentary bloc, once led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and now by his son, Ammar) has one single election gambit: get the Iraqi voter to think that by not voting for us, he or she would be voting for the return of the Ba’ath, a boogie that is much hated by the majority of Shi’a voters, who are the natural constituency for the INA. They can’t run on integrity, since they were and are still part of a government accused of widespread corruption in the public mind, and they can’t run on efficiency, since they haven’t been able to deliver basic services. So they can only run against a boogie man: the Ba’ath.
-The main competitor of the INA is PM Maliki’s State of Law slate. The INA wants to create the impression that Maliki is soft on Ba’athists. This started with the rumors that Maliki had even contemplated aligning himself with the poster-boy of neo-Ba’athism, Saleh al-Mutlag, (true) and appointing many Ba’athists in the security services he controls (also true). Maliki has been playing catch-up for several months aiming, at least rhetorically, to come out on the hawkish right of the INA when it comes to De-Baathification. However, the damage, as the issue looms larger as an election point, keeps bringing Maliki down with Shi’a voters, 40 percent of whom gave him their votes in critical provinces such as Baghdad and Basra in last year’s provincial elections.
-Chalabi is no. 3 on the INA’s list for Baghdad. That makes him one of its principal movers and shakers, as he had been in the past before falling out with Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim. By using the De-Baath commission to nullify the candidacy of 511 politicians, especially from Maliki’s and Bolani’s lists, he scored a big victory towards placing the Anti-Baath issue at the forefront of electoral politics. I’m also sure that he knew that the American administration would rise to the bait: Joe Biden’s attempts to micromanage this crises only serves to make the issue bigger, and the bigger it is, the better for the INA running on this controversy as their sole ‘gotcha’ against Maliki. It is interesting that Basra’s Muzahim al-Kana’an, who in the last election got an exemption from De-Baathication because he was running on Chalabi’s 2005 slate, has been included in the latest AJC list. Al-Kana’an is running with Bolani this time (…note that Bolani also ran on Chalabi’s list back then).
-Biden’s plan to delay implementing the law until after elections is patently ridiculous. Stripping MPs-after-the-fact of their status should the AJC’s evidence pan out is procedurally done by a simple majority vote in parliament, which is just a bigger crises waiting to happen. American involvement is being trumpeted in DC as a means to ensure that the withdrawal schedule proceeds on time. But no clause in the SOFA agreement mentions the word ‘elections’. It is a made-up excuse to meddle in internal Iraqi affairs and compromises, the one thing that US analysts and commentators seeking to disentangle America from Iraq have consistently said should be done by Iraqis themselves. One Iraqi side leveraging American power against another Iraqi side is a recipe for continued political imbalance. DeBaath was smart enough to include more Shi’as than Sunnis on the list of barred candidates. Speaking of ‘sectarian agendas’ may make sense in clueless DC, but doesn’t compute in Baghdad; the INA can easily claim, with Sunnis such as the pretender to the Iraqi throne Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein and liberal democrat Nassir al-Chadirchi featured prominently on its slate, that it has no sectarian agenda. Remember, their target audience is Shi’a, so by claiming to be above sectarianism, which is what Iraqis in general would like to believe about their favored slates in the elections, while highlighting American meddling as a leg-up for the Sunnis, the INA can sell itself, subtly, as the guarantor of Shi’a rights. Banking on residual sectarianism was the raison d’etre of reconstituting the INA, even though other Shi’a leaders are betting on ‘patriotic’ Iraqi agendas. Therein lies the competition.
-Which brings us back to Saleh al-Mutlag. He’s the principal beneficiary of this drama given, of course, if he’s eventually allowed to run. The debarment was exhibited in the media as a move principally directed against him for his stated (and taped) Ba’athist sympathies. According to the new AJC law, his statements are illegal. But he could appeal by saying that he uttered at a moment of anger. While it is true that at one point the Ba’athist leadership supported his candidacy as a temporary front for their participation in Iraqi politics, they were agreed that they will put the word out that he is not to be supported in the upcoming elections. That was what was being said in the summer, and most Sunnis were remarking that Mutlag will fall flat on his face in the parliamentary elections. See what Mutlag did was rather than be a front, he decided to become the front man. He overreached, and decided that he will cast himself in the role of the leader of Iraq’s Sunnis, something that the Ba’athist leadership couldn’t believe that he’d have the gall to do given that he was a nobody during the Saddam years. The INA doesn’t care about the Ba’athist constituency, since they could never compete for it. So if Mutlag takes it this time around, it doesn’t detract from their game plan against Maliki. Better still, it would be against the expressed wishes of the Ba’athist command. If Mutlag runs, then the Ba’athist vote would go to him despite the designs of the Ba’athist leadership since his failure at the polls would be perceived as the failure of the Ba’ath. They must grudgingly support him because he is now, especially after the AJC’s move, seen as the face of the neo-Ba’athist vote. Mutlag is no dummy, he won’t allow the Ba’athist leadership to gain a footing at his expense: this victory will be all his, and he may just be able to become what he has always worked for, the anointed leader of the Sunnis in the next parliament.
So here's my advice: watch Iraqi politics, if you're interested, as one would watch a soap opera. The harbingers of doom would like to peddle the idea that Iraq is forever at the precipe; one small nudge and it will go teetering over the edge. That's BS. The state is too stable, the anti-state forces are too depleted to do anything about it. Bombings are a nuisance, not a strategic threat anymore. The New Iraq has weathered the passing storm, and survived. What's left is the Grand Bargain that forges an Iraq in which its constituent parts can find a way to live, and prosper, together. The drama of Iraqi politics at this stage is more about mindless fun, than about a return to violence. Watch it, and understand it, as such. It is quite a feat that after less than a decade of the monumental change, we can talk about the re-introduction of political competition, in all its roller-coaster thrills, back to Baghdad. Nothing spells out success as much as this most salient fact.