Just two months shy of Iraq’s national elections in March, an apparent bombshell of a development hit the country. The country’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), as per the requests of the Accountability and Justice Commission, decided to ban more than 500 mainly Sunni electoral candidates from contesting the elections.
Iraq’s Sunni groups have organized and galvanized themselves in an impressive manner for the elections. There are at least three formidable groups that many expect to pose a serious challenge to post-2003 Iraq’s traditional powers: the Shiites and the Kurds. The Iraqi Accord Front, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) and the Unity Alliance of Iraq comprise serious and experienced politicians that, individually at least, have already proved their worth in Iraq’s previous elections.
Out of the three, it is the INM that has hit the headlines. One of the political parties within this coalition belongs to prominent Sunni Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former Baathist the IHEC has banned for glorifying and promoting the now outlawed Baath party. Banning such a well-regarded figure has the potential for disaster. It could lead to a mirroring of the 2005 Sunni boycott of the elections, with serious repercussions for the post-election environment and, as a result, complicate the United States’ plan to withdraw troops later this year.
Despite the headlines and the hype surrounding this debacle, it is not yet the “call to return to war” that some are making it out to be. The banned candidates were given the opportunity to appeal and 59 were reinstated. Ali al-Lami, the executive director of the Accountability and Justice Commission told Asharq Al-Awsat that the reinstatement of these candidates to the electoral list “was not a result of political or marginal agreements.” Rather, it was due to a mix-up over personal details such as names and dates of birth.
More important still is the reaction from Iraq’s other major groups, which have been relatively quiet; given that prominent figures such as Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his fellow INM member, the current Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, are still expected to take part in the elections, Sunni resentment in Iraq is unlikely to be anywhere as high as it was in 2005.
Analysts have been overwhelmingly critical of the IHEC decision, calling it a disaster for Iraq and a marginalization of the Sunnis. Some have derided the fact that just as former Baathists were being brought into the democratic system they are being pushed out again, just when they, and their “Sunni” Iraqi nationalist ideology, might pose a serious political threat.
Most former Baathists have recognized the futility of violence and are largely engaging in the democratic process. However, as the famous saying goes, do not confuse kindness with weakness. There is a feeling among Iraqis that as the so-called Baathists, or former regime loyalists, are welcomed back into the political arena, once they take up their positions of power and become comfortable (and confident), then they will start to show their true colors.
Take the example of parliamentarian Zafir al-Ani who recently, in defiance of the constitution, has openly praised Saddam Hussein and his former regime and has understated its crimes. This might be no more than attention-seeking antics, but it does stoke tensions.
Even more worrying for the vast majority of Iraqis were comments made in early January by British ambassador to Iraq, John Jenkins, who told the British Iraq Inquiry that a military coup in Iraq was a real possibility. Following this, Jenkins was vehemently criticized for making a remark that, essentially, played into the hands of those still yet-to-be reconciled Baathists.
According to on-the-ground Iraqis, the response from the Sunni tribes, who would be pivotal for any successful military takeover, was that they would be ready to overthrow the government if the British were willing to support it. The reason the British might want this, they said, would be that Iran wields too strong an influence in Iraq for the West to be able to match it through other means.
Just days after Jenkins’ remark, fears of a military coup abounded as Baghdad underwent a major security lockdown. According to Arab media reports, the lockdown was enforced in response to an attempt to overthrow Iraq’s Shiite-led government. The Iraqi government was quick to allay such concerns — reassuring that they had in fact foiled an attempted mass-terrorist attack — but the reality is that Iraq is still very much a victim of its past.
RANJ ALAALDIN is a scholar on Iraq and is
published regularly in The Guardian