With Washington's attention understandably focused on the tragedy in Haiti, Iraq has slipped onto the back burner. Yet there is a major problem brewing there — one that could jeopardize President Obama’s plan to draw down American forces and even reignite sectarian conflict.
Last Thursday, Iraq's Independent High Election Commission upheld a ban on nearly 500 Sunni politicians handed down (possibly illegally) some days earlier by the Accountability and Justice Commission. They were accused of having had ties to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Among those proscribed from running in the nationwide elections scheduled for March 7 were Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of Iraq's most influential Sunni politicians. Although confusion reigns, it is rumored that the brief appeal process will end Tuesday and, at present, it seems unlikely to ameliorate the situation.
The two commissions are dominated by officials appointed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, so it's not surprising that many Iraqis believe that the prime minister's Shiite-dominated government is disqualifying large numbers of political rivals, particularly Mr. Mutlaq, who had already allied himself with Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister widely considered Mr. Maliki's most dangerous foe. There is no evidence of this, but the perception is widespread and in Iraq, perception can do as much damage as reality. Meanwhile, many informed Americans and Iraqis are pointing to Ahmed Chalabi, the one-time political favorite of the Bush administration, as the real culprit. Mr. Chalabi, they say, is trying to manipulate the elections to become prime minister by default.
It's true that many of the disqualified politicians were once Baathists. But Iraq needs reconciliation, not payback. Any bans must be careful, selective and well-explained. They should not disqualify people like the defense minister — a former Baathist, but one who turned against the party in the 1990s and was imprisoned and tortured by the regime. Moreover, in recent years he has served the new Iraqi government loyally.
Before the surge of American troops in 2007 and the so-called Anbar Awakening, many Iraqi Sunnis boycotted Iraq's elections in the belief that the system was rigged against them. This created a self-fulfilling prophecy when the elections took place without them and the resulting government was dominated by Shiite and Kurdish groups. This vicious cycle helped fuel civil war.
All of that changed after 2007, when American-brokered cease-fires and political shifts convinced Sunnis that they would have a fair opportunity to elect their own leaders and participate in government at no disadvantage. In the provincial elections of January 2009, Sunnis finally voted in large numbers. Their return to the political process has been a key element in the rapid erosion of sectarianism from Iraqi politics. The end of the civil war and the need to focus on political and economic reconstruction had revealed sharp differences among the various Shiite groups, which have been heightened by the emergence of Sunni parties with similarly varied views.
As a result, there has been a complete reorganization of Iraqi politics over the past year, with Shiite, Sunni and even some Kurdish groups creating cross-sectarian alliances that have largely replaced the previous sectarian blocs. It was a sign of this progress that Sunni parties, particularly Mr. Mutlaq's, were being courted avidly by a number of Shiite and secular parties, including those led by Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi.
If the ban is allowed to stand, it will do more than just throw a wrench in the works. It will persuade a great many Iraqis that the prime minister or other Shiites, like Mr. Chalabi, are using their control over the electoral mechanics to kneecap their rivals. It may also convince many Sunnis that they will never be allowed to win if they play by the rules, and that violence is their only option.
That is an extraordinarily dangerous message to send right now, when the United States is trying hard to withdraw tens of thousands more American troops from Iraq and shift 50,000 or so from combat operations to advisory and training roles. If this ban remains in effect, the likelihood of electoral violence will skyrocket, and American soldiers will inevitably be called on to halt it.
All is not yet lost — over the past few years, Iraqi politicians have developed a penchant for last-minute compromise that has turned a number of near-catastrophes into mere close calls. In every one of those instances, however, it required rapid and determined American pressure to avert disaster.
The American Embassy in Baghdad is working feverishly to persuade the Iraqis to change course. Time is of the essence — especially if the Accountability and Justice Commission’s appeals process ends on Tuesday. If the United States doesn't act before the deadline, the bans will become much harder to roll back.
The threat of crisis is real enough that Vice President Joe Biden, who has played a useful role in backing up Ambassador Christopher Hill on several occasions lately, will have to help. It even merits direct involvement by President Obama. It is just this kind of seemingly small problem that could unravel the entire political fabric of Iraq.