Marc Lynch

Iraqi Politics and Zombies

Iraqi Politics and Zombies

My colleague Dan Drezner has created something of a cottage industry around "International Relations Theory and Zombies."  Well now Iraq has offered up an empirical case study for him — in Iraq, where the Parliament’s Accountability and Justice (nee de-Baathification) committee rose up from its grave and shambled forth seeking brains to devour.   Call it "Iraqi Political Accommodation… and Zombies."

The story, of course, is the Committee’s surprising decision to disqualify some 500 politicians, including the Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and the current Minister of Defense  Abdul-Qadir Jassem al-Obeidi,  from contesting the upcoming Parliamentary elections on the grounds of alleged Baathist ties.   The Higher Election Commission disappointed many observers by accepting the recommendation;  the issue now goes to appeal.   Mutlak’s list — which includes such figures as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and current Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi — is talking about boycotting the election, which many fear could have a major negative impact on the elections and on longer-term prospects for Iraqi political accommodation. Not bad work for a zombie!

I say that it’s the work of a "zombie" because the Accountability and Justice Committee, a relic of the Bremer era rooted in the conceptually flawed and badly politicized De-Baathification Commission, should be dead.  It is basically continuing to operate because the early 2008 legislation establishing its replacement never got off the ground, so the old team just stayed in place.   It’s most unfortunate that such a relic has thrown more fuel onto the fire of mistrust and institutional dysfunction… but hardly a surprise in the thinly institutionalized and still deeply polarized and hotly politicized Iraqi scene.

How significant is all this?  I don’t think that it shows a military "unraveling" as chronicled in Tom Rick’s eponymous never-ending series, but rather the political problems which the "surge" never really resolved.  And those go deep, and should not be a surprise. Major political legislation intended to overcome sectarian and institutional complaints has been stalled or ineffective.  Crucial Arab-Kurd issues remain unresolved.   Tensions between centralizers and federalists remain unresolved. The Awakenings remain largely unintegrated into the state.  Last year’s provincial elections generated excitement at the time and some political fluidity but have had only a limited impact on the wider environment and many of the new councils have proven disappointing.  The Iraqi refugees and internally displaced remain a persistent, gaping hole in the state.  Now the upcoming elections, along with the occasional bursts of horrific violence and rumours of coup attempts and foiled plots of various kinds,  has generated a feverish political environment and ramped up uncertainty about the future…. which this move only feeds.      

That said, even if the ban on Mutlak and the others stands, I doubt it will lead to an across the board 2005-style Sunni boycott.  Iraqi Sunni politics remain intensely fragmented and wracked by internal competition, as they have been for years.  The same fragmentation and divisions which make it difficult for the Sunnis either to form a workable electoral coalition or to rekindle the insurgency will probably make it impossible for them to coordinate or enforce a "Sunni" boycott.  Mutlak’s list has plenty of ambitious Sunni rivals who will be only too happy to take advantage of its boycott to grab some extra power for themselves.  

The whole situation may, however, help to drive down Sunni turnout in the elections and further distance them from the Iraqi political system.   The disqualifications come on top of all those long-running complaints mentioned above.   Parliamentary elections in which Sunni turnout is depressed, leading candidates have been disqualified on what appear to be sectarian grounds, and the final results do not significantly change the quality or quantity of Sunni representation will probably lead to even more dissatisfaction.  

The real significance of the electoral ban is not that it is likely to retrigger a sectarian war or lead to apocalyptic outcomes.  It’s more a manifestation of ongoing, lingering problems that continue to erode confidence in the emerging Iraqi state and erode the legitimacy of the evolving political system.   It certainly doesn’t mean that the U.S. should rethink its commitment to drawing down its military forces there, as some will likely suggest.  Indeed, the American commitment to withdraw did help to focus Iraqi minds, and some progress has been made on key issues — though clearly not enough.  These Iraqi problems have persisted and evolved despite the ongoing presence of large numbers of U.S. troops, and keeping them there longer wouldn’t do any more to solve them.    It would also infuriate Iraqi public opinion, and violate the SOFA agreement.   The U.S. should remain politically engaged and supportive but military force levels really aren’t the issue. 

Meanwhile, about those zombies….