For years, I've written about Iran's untoward influence in Iraq. Now, it appears as if Iran is making a power play, using its Iraqi allies, that could checkmate US influence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Back in 2003, many observers, including me, began reporting that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government had opened the door to the expansion of Iran's power. Most of the exiles installed into power by the United States, including Ahmed Chalabi, had close ties to Tehran. Now, it's paying off.
According to Iraqi sources, the decision to ban more than 500 Iraqi politicians from running in the March 7 election has been applied on a strictly sectarian basis. Although the action is based on the claim that the barred candidates are either current or former members of the Baath party, supporters of the party, or ex-officials from the Saddam-era military and intelligence service, nearly all of those barred are Sunnis, the sources say, while many former Baathists who are Shiites have been left untouched.
If the decision, by an unelected body called the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission, could destroy the elections, upend Iraq's fledgling democracy, trigger renewed sectarian conflict, and cause the outbreak of a full-scale civil war. It's that serious.
All this while US forces withdraw from Iraq.
The Justice and Accountability Commission is heir to the old, circa-2003 de-Baathification Commission, a McCarthyite blacklisting body set up by the neocon-domination occupation authorities after the US invasion of Iraq and headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the wheeler-dealer who was the chief proponent of the war in the 1990s and beyond and who was an intimate confidante of leading neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and various American Enterprise Institute apparatchiks such as Michael Rubin, Danielle Pletka, et al. Today, Chalabi -- who spends a lot of his time in Iran, and who US military authorities believe is essentially an agent of Tehran -- is still the titular leader of the Justice and Accountability Commission, which is run day-to-day by Ali Faysal al-Lami. Lami is a sectarian Shiite politician who is running on the same Shiite religious alliance in the March 7 election that was put together by Chalabi, with the support of Iran and the backing of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Iran's chief Iraqi ally.
The ultraconservative Tehran Times, an Iranian daily that serves as a mouthpiece for hardliners in the Iranian regime, has endorsed the commission's decision, meanwhile describing those barred as "terrorists":
"Unfortunately, according to investigative reports, certain local Iraqi groups and individuals, who are mostly the remnants of the Baathist regime, have been complying with terrorists to wreak havoc in the country in order to prove the current Iraqi government as inefficient."
Since last summer, leading Shiite-sectarian politicians, including Chalabi, ISCI's leaders, and others, have made pilgrimages back and forth to Tehran and Qom to put together the misnamed Iraqi National Alliance, a blatantly pro-Iran Shiite bloc. For Iran, whose regime is engaged in a life-and-death struggle at home against a resurgent opposition movement and a bitter diplomatic dispute with the United States over its nuclear program, its heavy-handed actions in Iraq might be seen as a warning. Push us too hard, the Iranians are saying, and we can make life miserable for you in Iraq.
Prime Minister Maliki, who has close ties to Iran himself, has apparently endorsed the decision of the JAC, which still has to be ratified by a higher body and can be reversed by parliament. The United States, which sees its entire Iraq project unraveling before its eyes, is reportedly pushing hard, behind the scenes, to make sure that the decision doesn't get upheld. Vice President Biden, who has taken on the Iraq portfolio for the Obama administration (apparently because no one else wanted it), has called Maliki to turn the screws. But the US has less and less leverage in Baghdad these days -- and Iran has more and more.
Even the neocons, other conservatives, and cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion like the editorial board of the Washington Post are alarmed over Chalabi's betrayal and the possibility that Iraq might spiral out of control. In its editorial today, the Post called Iraq's pre-election maneuvering a "cheap carnival ride," adding:
"There's not much clarity about who is behind the nasty maneuver -- but one protagonist appears to be Ahmed Chalabi, the notorious former exile leader and master of political manipulation. Now regarded as an Iranian agent by most U.S. officials, Mr. Chalabi, along with his associates, served Tehran's interests as well as his own by banning the Sunni leaders. Several of those blacklisted had recently joined cross-sectarian secular alliances that are challenging the Shiite coalition of which Mr. Chalabi is a part. ...
"Surprised by the sudden decision, U.S. and U.N. officials have been trying to moderate it. Vice President Biden, who used his influence to good effect during previous disputes over the elections, has been working the phones again."
Similar alarm bells were rung by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose officials, back in 2002, loved up Chalabi. An op-ed this week by two WINEP analysts concluded:
"On Jan. 7, the JAC, chaired by Ali Faysal al-Lami, a political ally of Ahmed Chalabi and a current candidate on Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress list for parliament, announced that it was seeking the exclusion of 500 primarily Sunni Arab candidates and 15 political lists from the elections due to their alleged connections to the banned Baath party. Following the commission's ruling, despite the questionable legality of its actions, neither the legislature nor the executive branch leadership have taken steps to quash this inflammatory decision. ...
"If hope is still to trump fear in Iraq's ongoing democratic experiment, the Obama administration should work urgently with the Iraqi political leadership in Baghdad to see that the JAC's legally dubious actions are overturned. While unlikely, such a reversal might be possible should the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, and responsible Iraqi political leaders continue to apply pressure. Whatever the merits of de-Baathification, Iraq's democratic future should not be held hostage by this blatantly politicized ruling."
Strangely, or perhaps not, the folks at AEI, including Michael Rubin and Danielle Pletka, have been virtually mum on Iraq for months.
The best and most thorough analysis of the Iraq crisis comes from Reidar Visser, a Norwegian political scientist, who is one of the few analysts not to have abandoned Iraq as the world's attention shifted elsewhere. In his must-read blog, Visser writes:
"It is hard to describe this development as anything than other than complete system failure in the new democracy in Iraq. Almost inevitably, the atmosphere of the elections will now turn into a repeat of December 2005, with escalating rhetoric that can easily turn sectarian."