When the Iraqi Justice and Accountability Commission announced last week that they were barring 511 candidates from competing in the upcoming national elections due to their ties with Bathists, the decision immediately inflamed sectarian tensions. Since the controversy centered around the disqualification of Saleh al-Mutlak and his Hiwar al-Watani party (part of the biggest secular coalition, and considered the biggest challenger to Maliki and the main Shi'i coalition), the episode wreeked of sectarian-minded Shia trying to suppress Sunni representation in the upcoming vote. Upon further analysis of the disqualification list, however, it seems that the situation is a bit more complicated and nuanced. Boiling this whole thing down to sectarianism may be missing the larger point. And that point is that the Iraqi political apparatus is broken and has been from the beginning.
First of all, the 511 barred candidates are not exclusively Sunni. For what it's worth, the head of the Independent Election Committee says that the list is almost split evenly between Sunnis and Shia. Moreover, it's more accurate to say that secular coalitions have taken the hardest hit, as opposed to Sunni coalitions. The Hashimi-Allawi-Mutlak list has been hit hardest; 72 of its candidates have been banned. The Unity List, headed by Interior Ministry Jawad al-Bolani, also took a good amount of casualties; 67 of its candidates were disqualified. Bolani is a secular Shi'i who was a former ally of Nuri al-Maliki. Even al-Maliki's list - State of Law - suffered some disqualifications, most prominent among which was Defense Minister Jassim Obeidi.
It's also important to note that the individual in charge of the Justice and Accountability Commission, Ali al-Lami, is a candidate himself. He is part of the Iraqi National Alliance, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. Yes, quite a conflict of interest. How many INA candidates were disqualified, you ask? One - a low-profile candidate way down on its Basra list.
So after processing all this, one gets the feeling that this may be more a symptom of an entrenched despotism in the Iraqi political system rather than simply overt sectarianism. But rest assured, because help is on the way: smoothe-talking Joe Biden is heading to Baghdad to try and defuse the crisis (after the week the Obama administration has had, who wouldn't want to get away for a while?). Surprisingly, there are reasons to be a tad bit optimistic. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said yesterday that he has doubts about the legality of the very commission that has issued the disqualifications, while the Washington Post claims that Maliki and other top officials are looking for a solution to the crisis.
Biden has been suggesting that the JAC delay its disqualifications until after the election. I get the feeling that this just kicks the can down the road and misses the point. The point is that the problem lies in the structure of Iraq's political system, set up under Paul Bremer back in 2003-2004. As long as politics are rooted in an ethno-confessional basis, the underlying sectarian logic that basis perpetuates will continue. Thus, this whole crisis is simply a symptom of a larger problem.