Ba’ath saga haunts Iraq’s future
De-Ba’athification is derailing the national reconciliation process, but Sunnis will not necessarily chose to boycott elections
The Iraqi government is treading a fine line after its Accountability and Justice commission (also known as the “de-Ba’athification” commission) moved to bar a prominent Sunni politician, Salah al-Mutlaq, and 14 others from contesting the national elections in March because of their ties with the outlawed Ba’ath party.
Mutlaq heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, which in last year’s provincial elections performed well in Sunni-dominated areas. He is considered a key player, and for the forthcoming elections has joined forces with fellow former Ba’athist and former Iraqi premier Ayad Allawi, along with current vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi. Both command a significant following and the grouping, named the Iraqi National Movement (INM), should be a force to be reckoned with, especially ifprevious election results are anything to go by.
It is no surprise then that Sunni officials consider this another plot by the Shia-dominated government to outmanoeuvre and marginalise the Sunnis, who this time round are expected to come out and vote en masse and, therefore, threaten the dominance of Iraq’s other major groups.
The whole affair may indeed seem like a sinister anti-Sunni campaign in anticipation of the coming elections. After all, Mutlaq’s Ba’ath history has been known all along, and never stopped him from contesting the 2005 elections. INM officials have linked the decision to Iranian foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki’s visit to Baghdad, just one day before it was made.
Prolific Iraq commentator Reidar Visser refers to the “selective de-Ba’athification” process being pursued in Iraq, given that historically, he notes, the Shias and Sunnis alike co-operated with the old regime in their millions. He criticises the Iraqi government for singling out Sunni political opponents as Ba’athists and for silently co-opting political friends without mentioning their Ba’athist ties at all.
But while Visser’s argument holds water to some extent, it is important to draw a line between those Ba’athists who were deeply embedded within the regime through and throughout (that is Mutlaq) and those that may have served the regime’s opportunistic endeavours at any given point and who were not, therefore, deep-rooted regime loyalists even if they thought they were (that is the Shia tribes, Kurdish Jash, and so on).
Moreover, the list issued by the commission also includes non-Sunni Arab groups. It includes, for instance, Jawhar al-Harki, a Kurd who calls himself a former adviser to Saddam; it also includes Arshad al-Zibari, again a Kurd who has been cited as a close friend and ally of Saddam’s. Both are allied with the al-Hadba group in Mosul, which controls the provincial council there. Al-Hadba, dominated and funded by Ba’ath loyalists, is also part of the INM. Curiously, the commission does not ban them outright.
Historically, the Ba’athists have a habit of resurfacing and exploiting state and military structures, and there is still a significant group of Ba’athists within and/or beyond Iraq’s borders that continue to prepare and mount terrorist atrocities. What is difficult to determine is whether those seemingly reconciled Ba’athists have truly changed their colours, and herein lays the concerns of not just Iraq’s Shias and Kurds but also of former British ambassador to Iraq John Jenkins, who last week gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry. Further, Mutlaq himself has courted factions that still support the Ba’ath party, suggesting it continues to be a key component of Iraqi society.
What is not clear at this point is how the Arab street feels, an important factor in determining how the Sunni electorate will react on 7 March. Iraq’s other dominant Sunni groups, such as the Anbar Awakening Council, led by Abu Risha, and the Iraqi Accord Front coalition, which used to include Tariq al-Hashimi, have so far provided a relatively muted response. They may see no reason to boycott the elections; the latter took part in the 2005 election despite a Sunni boycott, while the former will point out that Mutlaq himself decided to contest the 2005 election while they, along with the rest of the Awakening forces, were busy fighting coalition forces.
Mutlaq’s coalition partners in the INM, made up mostly of pragmatists, are also unlikely to withdraw from the political process, despite threatening to do so. Further, it is hoped the Sunnis have largely left, or hope to leave behind their violent, exclusionary past in the new Iraq. It is difficult to imagine that they would make the same strategic mistakes.
Still, Iraq’s electoral commission will decide whether to press ahead with the ban after it has received the commission’s formal report. Suspected parties can then launch an appeal. However, the saga has already hurt the process of national reconciliation, imperative for long-term stability and US withdrawal plans, and as a result the damage may have already been done.