Confusion and opacity has continued to surround the bizarre yet unsurprising political turmoil currently unfolding in Iraq. Last Thursday, Iraq's De-Ba'thification Commission announced that it was banning 500 out of the 6,000 candidates running in Iraq's national election, due to take place on March 7, due to these candidates' ties to the outlawed Ba'th Party. These disqualifications have included several highly prominent figures: Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni leader of the "Iraqiya" list, Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, the Defense Minister since 2006, and several candidates from Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani's list. Even the government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, was believed to have been disqualified before the misunderstanding was cleared up.
The disqualifications were determined by the Accountability and Justice Commission, the inheritor of the De-Ba'thification Committee's duties. It is widely perceived to be acting out of sectarian and political motivations; its head, Ali al-Lami, is notable for his alleged ties with Shi'i sectarian militias and with Iranian intelligence.
Most of the controversey has centered around the disqualification of Saleh al-Mutlak, a prominent Sunni lawmaker who has allied with former PM Ayad Allawi and VP Tariq al-Hashimi to form the "Iraqiya" list. This list is widely seen as a fierce competitor of Maliki's list and the main Shi'i list. If Sunni turnout on March 7th is strong, it could do well and end up playing a key role in choosing the next PM and cabinet.
The question is whether Mutlak's disqualification will lead to a widespread Sunni boycott on March 7th. Given the affiliation of the figures leading these purges (many are associated with Chalabi, the Sadrists, and have close ties to Iran), many Sunnis perceive this episode as only more evidence that Sunnis are disenfranchised for good in the new Iraq, and that the democratic political process is little more than a charade. On the other hand, the barring of Mutlak opens the door for other amibitous Sunni and secular Shi'i leaders (like Allawi) who may be looking to capitalize on having Mutlak out of the picture. For example, reports indicate that Mutlak's disqualification has frayed relations between him and Allawi. Will Allawi call for a boycott just because his main coalition partner has been illegitimately disqualified?
The severity of the situation has even merited direct involvement on the part of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who according to the Arabic press has been pressuring the Iraqi government to cancel or postpone the disqualifications. The Obama administration has been tying its withdraw time-table to the elections, so these kinds of shenanigans are the last thing they need right now.
As I said before, these disqualifications are brazen and bizarre, but they are not necessarily surprising. Iraqi politics still haven't moved entirely beyond a sectarian dynamic, and the central government still hasn't done much to institutionalize Sunni integration into the political system. This episode merely highlights all of these problems that have been festering for so long. The Saudi-funded Arabic media has been playing this up as evidence of an Iranian takeover of Iraq that will end up further disenfrachising Sunni Arabs. Editor of the Saudi as-Sharq al-Awsat Tariq al-Homayed even compared democracy in Iraq to the charade of democracy in Iran.
The bottom line is that the current fiasco means that Iraq's March election will not produce the legitimacy and the resolution of that country's deep, unresolved conflicts necessary to stabilize its political and security environment. Joost Hiltermann, an analyst at ICG and friend of the Kevorkian Center, said that "this can only help to reignite sectarian war." The potential for violence may depend on the extent of a Sunni boycott in March. The Sunni political scene is highly fractured; it may not be easy to enforce one. Though this whole byzantine episode is clouded in confusion and ambiguity, one thing is certain: abysmally low Sunni turnout or an all-out boycott has the potential to unravel Iraq's political and social fabric and to return the country to a state of sectarian tension and violence not seen since 2007.