The election in Iraq is less than a month away -- that is, if indeed it is held as scheduled on March 7 -- and things are going from bad to worse.
Last month, an unelected commission held over from the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, the Justice and Accountability Commission, issued a shocking ruling banning more than 500 candidates from taking part in the election, including a number of members of the current parliament running for reelection. That commission, successor to the old De-Baathification Commission, is controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and one of his cronies, Ali al-Lami. Chalabi, the darling of Bush-era neoconservatives, who pushed Chalabi as Iraq's leader after 2003, has long had close ties to Tehran, and in this case the ban struck at those Iraqi politicians most opposed to Iran's growing influence in Iraq.
Last week, an Iraqi appeals court seemed to overturn the ban. Its action followed a visit to Baghdad by Vice President Joe Biden, who has assumed the Iraqi portfolio for the Obama administration, and Biden pressed the Iraqis to reinstate the candidates. 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 list for the upcoming election," said Hillary Clinton.
But not so fast. Following the court's decision, the government of Iraq -- led by a coalition of Shiite-sectarian politicians closely tied to Iran -- demanded that the appeals court decision be overruled. Ali al-Dabbagh, one of Prime Minister 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 Maliki himself blasted Hill: "We will not allow American Ambassador Christopher Hill to go beyond his diplomatic mission." Maliki began working with leaders of his coalition, members of parliament, and the top court to ensure that the Chalabi-imposed ban remains.
The US intervention in Iraqi politics reveals that, despite the presence of more than 100,000 US troops, America's influence in Iraq is fading fast -- and Iran's is growing. There isn't much that the United States can do about that. As soon as George W. Bush made the fateful decision to sweep away the Iraqi government and install pro-Iranian exiles in Baghdad, the die was cast. President Obama has no choice but to pack up and leave.
But those on the receiving end of the Iranian-inspired mischief feel betrayed and abandoned. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose key coalition partner, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was banned, blasted the Chalabi commission: "The justice and accountability commission is actually a secret police. We don't know who these members are or how they have been appointed. We know the main culprits." He accused the JAC of "fabricating records." Many of the secular politicians, Sunnis, anti-Iranian Shiites, and others who oppose the Maliki government want the US to intervene on their behalf, including through covert support to their parties, but that does not seem to be in the cards -- nor would it be a good idea.
Still, the JAC action is McCarthyite in the extreme, tarring any and all opponents of the current ruling elite with being Baath party members. Secular politicians, nationalists, former Baathists with low-level positions, dissident Baathists who left the party in the 1970s (such as Allawi and Mutlaq), and many others are painted as blood-stained criminals and "Saddamists." The fact that Maliki has descended to such bitter and petty name calling signals that the prime minister has abandoned any pretense of trying to rise about sectarianism to become a national leader. For the election, at least, Maliki has thrown his lot in with the pro-Iranian clique.
Of course, there is still an election. Whether or not Iraqi voters, including the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shiites, will but Maliki's waving of the bloody flag of Baathism isn't clear. Also, it's possible that the ban on the hundreds of candidates will be lifted, but time is running out. Ballots have to printed. Campaigning, scheduled to start on Feb. 7, has been postponed until the end of this week, if then. And the damage is done. Maliki, Chalabi, and their friends in Tehran have poisoned the atmosphere for the March 7 vote. The only question left is whether or not the dose is fatal.