In less than two weeks, millions of Iraqis will take to the polls to elect the 325 members of the Iraqi parliament. From afar, all the election indicators appear encouraging: 3,000 polling stations have been primped and primed, international monitoring teams have arrived, 18.9 million Iraqis are registered, and over 6,000 candidates will partake in the vote on March 7. But a closer look at today’s Iraq will reveal a much gloomier picture: a tense political environment characterized by Sunni-Shiite antagonism, a defunct electoral commission, flagrant corruption, and a notably brutal spike in beheadings and suicide bombings.
While all of this has occurred, the United States has effectively taken the back seat, deciding that it’s better to watch the election naturally unfold than to interfere and risk being labeled as intrusive. But just as the prognosis of a democratic and viable election becomes slimmer by the day, so too does the chance that a coalition government will form. America cannot afford the fallout that is bound to result from the injustices being committed by the Iraqi government.
The most notable injustice is the disqualification of 511 candidates by the Iraqi Accountability and Justice Commission, a subset of the Iraqi Elections Committee. The board is run by two dubious politicians, Ahmad Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, both prominent Shiites who have been accused by top U.S. commander Raymond Odierno of having intimate ties with Iran. But their suspect backgrounds don’t end there: Al-Lami was arrested in 2008 for alleged ties to a Baghdad bombing that killed four Americans and six Iraqis, and Chalabi is the man accused of providing the Bush administration with faulty information on Iraq’s weapons program.
It’s no surprise, then, that the commission would bar the 500-odd candidates, the vast majority of whom are Sunni politicians with former ties to the Baath party of Saddam Hussein. Both Chalabi and al-Lami acted as key figures on the 2003-2004 Supreme National De-Baathification Commission created by Paul Bremer. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the current justice commision is a continuation of the McCarthyite de-Baathification procedure—McCarthyite for its arbitrary firing of 30,000 ex-Baath politicians, thousands of intelligence officials, and all military officers above the rank of colonel. There exists no constitutional basis for the disqualification of candidates by the election board. If the elections are to move forward with a substantial number of Sunnis missing from the ballots, how could results possibly be representative of Iraqi society?
The Obama administration needs to reassess its silence on Iraq’s election and begin three key processes: limiting Iranian influence in Iraq, condemning candidate disqualification, and undoing de-Baathification. Iran has used bribes and threats to support its preferred candidates. U.S. intelligence has implicated key Iraqi government officials like Chalabi and al-Lami in having direct ties to Tehran and using Iranian clerical influence and support. Remarkably, Chalabi is both cochair on the Iraqi election committee and leader of one of the political coalitions partaking in the March elections—the Iraqi National Alliance. Another INA leader, Ammar al-Hakim, has modeled his political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, on the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The last thing the United States needs in the Middle East is an Iranian puppet state.
When Vice President Biden visited Iraq earlier this month, he requested that elections be transparent and inclusive, but failed to offer any suggestions or proposals as to how to resolve the disqualification situation. An election that produces a Shiite-majority government will brew resentment targeted not only at bureaucrats in Baghdad but also at the Obama administration, which implicitly supports the sectarian inequity in Iraq. While Biden’s visit did cause the Board to drop 28 individuals off of the no-run list, 483 remain on the list with no removal in sight.
The Obama administration needs to loudly and clearly condemn the de-Baathication process that has become synonymous with de-Sunnification. A catastrophic problem with U.S. perception of Iraqi politics is that it automatically associates Sunni politicians with the inhumane policies of Saddam, when, in fact, there exists a salient distinction between the religious community and the former leader. Yes, the majority of Saddam’s party consisted of Sunnis, but Shiites were also members of the political party. A little known fact is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself was a member of the Baath party under Saddam. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, secularists, and all Iraqis need to be included in the political process regardless of creed, ethnicity, or former political association.
This administration must break its silence and provide concrete solutions for democracy-building. We are witnessing the formative years of Iraq’s post-invasion life. If we fail to support the foundation of a truly multi-sectarian Iraqi government now, we will bear the brunt of more sectarian violence in the future. While the winners of March elections are unclear, it is palpably clear that instability will ensue in Iraq if we fail to act immediately.
Rhonda Shafei is a Columbia College sophomore. She is the publisher of the Columbia Political Union and the director-general of CMUNCE. The Politics of Hummus runs alternate Thursdays. firstname.lastname@example.org