My article below appeared in the Guardian and provided an update on the developments but also critically assessed US Vice-President Joe Biden’s proposal to postpone the ban for until after the elections, so that only those so-called Baathists who won would be investigated.
Confusion surrounds the whole Shia-Sunni aspect of the banning of 511 parliamentary candidates. Faraj Al-Hayder, head of the IHEC, has said the number on the list is “roughly” equal, while Reuters reports here there are more Shias than Sunnis. The article says that it is predominantly Sunni.
In any case, I was one of the first to reject the sectarian colourings observers were giving the whole affair when it started and referred to the fact that Shias as well as Kurds are included on the list. Having said this, the most significant of those banned is Salah Mutlaq, a Sunni. It is this that prompted the initial, somewhat hyperbolic, reactions that turned, in essence, the molehill into a mountain and that threatened/threatens to derail the elections.
The banning of more than 500 candidates will severely test the upcoming Iraqi elections’ legitimacy
A few months ago the stage was set in Iraq for what looked like a much-improved exercise in democracy where ethnic and sectarian boundaries would be crossed, to some degree, in the electoral process. Over the past few weeks, however, the banning of 511 predominantly Sunni candidates, and the intense bickering that followed, have cast a shadow over the forthcoming elections. Barred candidates have the opportunity to appeal, but the appeal process for so many candidates could take longer than the two months left between now and the elections.
Diplomatic efforts by western governments are accordingly in full gear, with concerns centring on instability and what this could mean for the withdrawal of troops later this year, as well as the increased Iranian influence that could result from eliminating any strongly nationalistic, anti-Iran elements from the Iraqi parliament.
In an effort to resolve the crisis, the UN called for the list to be discarded and, not surprisingly, was dismissed almost immediately. A more constructive proposal came from US vice-president Joseph Biden and his team of Middle East advisers. Biden suggested that the list be set aside until after the elections, so that only candidates who are elected would have to be examined for Baathist ties. His suggestion may have been the result of the lobbying efforts of Ayad Allawi, who this week visited Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region and a prominent ally of Washington in Iraq. Allawi heads the Iraqi National Movement, which had at least 70 members banned and which includesSalah al-Mutlaq, a key Sunni player whose banning is the most controversial of all.
Reports suggest Biden’s proposal could be taken on board. It has not yet been rejected by the Iraqis. However, if banning the candidates is a disastrous move (and the US clearly believes it is) then Biden’s proposal merely postpones the disaster. Allowing suspected Baathists or ex-Baathists to be voted into parliament, and then ejecting them against the wishes of the electorate could have far more adverse consequences than barring them from the elections from the start.
The official western policy in Iraq has been to let Iraqis take care of Iraqi affairs. As a result, the US, UN and EU have largely watched from the sidelines as disputes over Kirkuk, oil and power sharing continue.
From time to time, though, they do give an effective nudge. The election law mayhem a few months ago saw Iraq’s groups at a deadlock over controversial details of the 7 March elections, which threatened to derail US withdrawal plans. But then the US, along with the UK, stepped in andparliament finally passed the law. Although it was returned to parliament for modification straight afterwards, parliament was quick in passing it.
Whether western input will improve things or make them worse this time round is not clear. Significant and prominent Sunni entities are still contesting the elections and, despite the ban, Sunni resentment is not what it was in 2005 when most boycotted the elections. The question is whether the US is stoking the sectarianism that some Sunnis have associated with the debacle – to the extremists’ advantage, since it may end up taking the dispute away from the Iraqi political and legal arenas and into the street, where it then becomes contested in a violent and communal fashion. A largely Iraqi problem will then become not so much an Iraqi one, but a US one.