Last week saw some potentially destabilizing political developments in Iraq that have gone largely un-noticed in the U.S. media. Last Thursday, the Iraqi de-Ba'thification Committee (which since January 2008 is officially known as the Justice and Accountability Commission) declared that 15 political parties are ineligible to participate in the national elections, which are to be held March 7th. Most significantly, the commission declared that the coalition of Saleh al-Mutlak, Iyad Allawi and Tariq al-Hashimi - largest Sunni-led bloc - will not be able to participate due to al-Mutlak's ties to Ba'thists.
First of all, it's worth looking at what this Justice and Accountability Commission is and who runs it. The de-Ba'thification Committee was created under the auspices of Paul Bremer back in May 2003, and was upheld in the Constitution crafted during the summer of 2005 (al-Mutlak was one of the main Sunni participants in the drafting of the Constitution). In January of 2008, the commission was formally changed to the "Justice and Accountability Commission" and was headed by Ali al-Lami, a Sadrist who had been arrested by U.S. forces in late 2008 for alleged connections to Iranian intelligence. He was released months later and retook his spot as head of the commission. Given al-Lami's credentials as a Sadrist and his alleged connections to Iran, his decision to ban the largest Sunni-led bloc has inflamed sectarian tensions. The prominent Saudi editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat and director of the satellite station al-Arabiyya, Tariq al-Homayed, has lambasted al-Lami's move as "a threat to the stability and unity of Iraq."
Though the Iraqi Electoral Commission has the final say over whether Mutlak's "National Dialogue" party is barred from participating in the elections, this episode nevertheless reflects the continuing struggle to find some sort of political equilibrium in Iraq. I had commented on a lengthy article by Nir Rosen back in November, in which Rosen emphasized how openly sectarian Shia with chips on their shoulder the size of Montana had influential positions in the federal and local governments. Al-Lami's decision further confirms this. It also thus confirms Rosen's assertion that it is still too early to begin talking about a post-sectarian future for Iraq.
If al-Lami's decision to ban al-Mutlak's party stands, Sunni leaders have promised to boycott the elections in March. And if that happens, it's back to square one. My guess is that the electoral commission overturns al-Lami's ruling; an election from which the largest Sunni-led coalition is barred would certainly be too sectarianly explosive. Cooler heads may prevail, as they did with the recent controversy over VP al-Hashimi's vetoing the electoral law. Regardless, it's never a positive sign when a figure like al-Lami - who still remains unconfirmed by Parliament as head of the newly renamed de-Ba'thification commission - can disqualify the largest Sunni-led coalition and ignite sectarian tensions at the drop of a hat.
***Update***: The Iraqi Eelections Commission (IHEC) just announced that it will uphold the ban on Saleh al-Mutlak's candidacy. Mutlak's only legal recourse now is to appeal to a board of seven judges that Parliament created three days ago. As noted above, disqualifying Mutlak from the elections could have enormous consequences for the stability of Iraq. I'll have more in the next few days.