Iraq's New Sectarian Storm Clouds
Seven years after the US invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein's government and pulverized the Iraqi state, voters will go to the polls on March 7 in an election that most Iraqis hope will continue their country's uneven progress toward political stability. But a new crisis, provoked by an anti-Baathist purge in mid-January by Tehran's allies in Iraq, has threatened to unravel Iraq's fledgling democracy. At best, a backroom deal at the last minute could restore some semblance of normalcy to the election, but the purge has poisoned the atmosphere, perhaps fatally. At worst, the crisis could reignite the sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006.
"Do I think there could be a return to civil war?" asks Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq's former UN ambassador. "I do."
The possibility of new violence in Iraq, coming on the eve of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of US troops by August, has alarmed the Obama administration. At the White House, at the US military's Central Command and at the American Embassy in Baghdad, officials are worried. "Tony Blinken was off the charts," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and Iraq specialist at the Center for American Progress (CAP), referring to the top aide to Vice President Joseph Biden, who has taken charge of American policy in Iraq since last summer. Another insider, who recently visited Baghdad for talks with US military and diplomatic officials and who requested anonymity, says Gen. Ray Odierno and the military command think President Obama may have to reconsider the US withdrawal timetable. "People in the administration that I talk to say Iraq is way too important for the United States to allow it to implode," he says.
Just a year ago, it seemed as if Iraq was muddling through. The January 2009 provincial elections, widely seen as a dry run for this year's more important vote to choose a new national government, boosted the fortunes of secular and nationalist parties and delivered what many analysts saw as a near knockout blow to the turbaned religious parties, especially the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which lost big. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, disguising his origins as a leader of the secretive Shiite Dawa Party, won strong support last year while campaigning as a born-again nationalist atop a new coalition that he called State of Law. After the provincial elections, Maliki even began to explore the possibility of an alliance with representatives of the mostly Sunni secular opposition, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads the National Dialogue Front, and with nonsectarian politicians such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
That was then. Starting last spring, at the urging of top officials in Iran--including Ali Larijani, the conservative, Iraqi-born speaker of the Iranian Parliament, and Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps--a group of sectarian Shiite religious leaders patched over their differences to establish the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), linking ISCI with the forces of rogue cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of a renegade Dawa faction; and Ahmad Chalabi, the former darling of US neoconservatives, who has long maintained close ties to Iran's hardliners.
The creation of the INA was widely seen, inside and outside Iraq, as an Iranian project. Reidar Visser, a close observer of Iraqi affairs at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says efforts to rebuild the Shiite sectarian alliance began last spring, after a visit to Baghdad by Larijani. Soon afterward, a stream of Iraqi officials made pilgrimages to Tehran, where a deal between the Hakim family (the founders of ISCI) and Sadr was brokered by Iran. "Part of the Iranian strategy has been to put politics in Iraq back on the sectarian track," says Visser. Both Iran and the new Shiite alliance pressured Maliki to join, but at that time the prime minister felt strong enough to run independently.
Then, this past January 14, Iraq's electoral overseers ratified a decision by the so-called Accountability and Justice Commission, an unelected body controlled by Chalabi and one of his cronies, Ali al-Lami, to ban more than 500 candidates for Parliament. They were barred from running, said the commission, on vague charges of ties to the deposed Baath Party. Among those banned were current members of Parliament and Iraqi officials, including Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi and Mutlaq, who'd joined forces with Allawi. The commission's action was a bomb thrown into the center of Iraqi politics and sparked talk of a boycott and even a new antigovernment insurgency.
Lami, the architect of the purge, has a shady past. In August 2008 he was arrested by US forces in Iraq and held for more than a year because of his involvement with a violent Shiite underground movement called the League of the Righteous. The League, which is believed to enjoy covert backing from Iran's Quds Force, has been responsible for a series of high-profile killings and kidnappings. Recently several of the League's other leaders, including founder Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith, were also released from custody, and at least one of them fled to Iran. Although the Khazali brothers flirted with abandoning violence and becoming a political party, on January 23 the Khazalis' League took responsibility for the kidnapping of an American contractor.
"The country will go into severe turmoil, I'm sure," said Allawi, after the banning was confirmed by Iraq's electoral commission. "This will put Iraq in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war."