Iraq's New Sectarian Storm Clouds
That Iraq is once again on the brink of civil conflict is the legacy of unresolved differences that linger in the uneasy calm that has prevailed since late 2007. Among those conflicts are the simmering dispute over the borders of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north; the status of Kirkuk and its oil industry, which is claimed by both the Kurds and the central government; and constitutional and legal disputes about federal versus provincial powers, including how to divvy up Iraq's oil export revenue. But perhaps the bitterest dispute of all is a tangle of issues that involve the disenfranchised Sunni Arab minority, tensions between Sunni and Shiite leaders, and the problem of how to reintegrate those who were part of Iraq's Baathist past. It's the last issue that was stirred up by the Chalabi-inspired ban.
The momentum of last year's provincial elections raised the hopes of all Iraqis who looked forward to a future in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would run as Iraqis, divided not along ethnic and sectarian lines but according to political differences. To capitalize on that sentiment, a number of new parties and politicians have put down roots in advance of the 2010 election. Among them are the Iraq Unity party, formed by Jawad al-Bolani, the secular Shiite minister of the interior, and Ahmad Abu Risha, whose slain brother founded the Sunni-led Awakening movement, which brought thousands of former insurgents into politics; the Ahrar (Liberal) party, founded by Iyad Jamal Aldin, a Shiite cleric who is a fierce advocate for secularism and who is strongly opposed to Iran's influence in Iraq; and the National Unity Front, led by Aiham al-Samaraie, the former minister of electricity. All of these parties were intimidated or otherwise adversely affected by the anti-Baathist witch hunt launched by the commission. "I can't have my future depend on something that appears in the brain of Ahmad Chalabi," says al-Samaraie. "They are trying to clean up anyone they don't want to see in the next Parliament."
But the party hit hardest by the ban was the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, a big coalition led by Allawi, Mutlaq, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and a group of Sunni and Shiite secularists who hoped to capitalize on voter disenchantment with the sectarianism and religious fundamentalism of ISCI, Dawa and the Sadrists. According to Istrabadi, former ambassador to the UN, private polls taken by the American and British embassies indicate that the Allawi-Mutlaq bloc might do well enough at the polls to make Allawi prime minister. "That alliance has a credible path to power," says Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi defense minister and a cousin of Iyad Allawi. "It's well funded, and it's based on a bedrock of Sunni support."
The most credible hypothesis is that officials in Tehran and leaders of the Shiite alliance in Iraq panicked over the possibility that the Allawi-Mutlaq party might actually win. "I think Ahmad [Chalabi] and the boys started to run scared," Istrabadi says.
Prime Minister Maliki, who might have played the statesman and urged a compromise, shocked Iraq's political establishment by siding aggressively with the Iran-backed coalition. When the ban was announced, US officials moved quickly to use their influence to reverse it. Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, warned bluntly that Chalabi and Lami had "hijack[ed] the [commission] without having been confirmed as the leadership of it and being manipulated by, reportedly, the Iranian Quds force." Vice President Biden flew hurriedly to Baghdad to urge a reversal of the ban, and after his visit an Iraqi appeals court seemed to take his advice, overruling the Chalabi-Lami commission and Iraq's election board. After the appeals court ruling, US officials congratulated themselves. "We were heartened by the decision earlier this week to reverse the deletion of the 500 names from the election lists for the upcoming election," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 5.
But not so fast. Following the court's decision, Maliki demanded that the appeals court decision be overruled. Ali al-Dabbagh, one of Maliki's closest aides, called the lifting of the ban "illegal and not constitutional." Another of Maliki's aides called for the expulsion of US ambassador Christopher Hill, who reportedly lobbied behind the scenes to get the ban lifted. And, in an unusual breach of diplomatic protocol, Maliki himself blasted Hill. "We will not allow American ambassador Christopher Hill to go beyond his diplomatic mission," said Maliki. He began working with leaders of his coalition, members of Parliament and the top court to ensure that the Chalabi-imposed ban remain.
The Chalabi bombshell, despite the shock it engendered, wasn't a complete surprise. Since last summer, Maliki and the Shiite alliance, the INA, have been working hard to scare Iraqis about the alleged danger of a comeback by Saddamists. Few, if any, of the opposition candidates are Saddam loyalists, and most of them who did once belong to the Baath Party, including Allawi and Mutlaq, quit or were expelled decades ago. But Maliki and the INA are trying to stampede Shiite voters, who make up more than half the Iraqi electorate, into staying away from the nonsectarian parties, even the ones led by Shiites such as Allawi, Interior Minister Bolani and Jamal Aldin.
"One of the things that Chalabi and the de-Baathification committee are trying to do is to equate secularists and nationalists with Baathists," suggests Istrabadi. "Has he succeeded? We don't know yet."