Iraqi disaster averted, yet again

The disqualification of some 500 candidates for the March 7 Iraqi Parliamentary election by the Accountability and Justice (deBaathification) commission headed by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi has reportedly been overturned only days before the launch of the election campaign.  The Independent Higher Election Commission has said that it received instructions from the Appeals Court ...

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

The disqualification of some 500 candidates for the March 7 Iraqi Parliamentary election by the Accountability and Justice (deBaathification) commission headed by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi has reportedly been overturned only days before the launch of the election campaign.  The Independent Higher Election Commission has said that it received instructions from the Appeals Court to throw out the disqualifications, and would proceed accordingly.  Details remain sketchy, since this happened too late for today's edition of most Arab and Iraqi newspapers, but from what I've pieced together it looks like the crisis has been averted (see Reidar Visser's ongoing coverage of the crisis here).  Once again Iraq has not unraveled, and Iraqis have figured out how to prevent their own system from collapsing around them.   Quiet U.S. diplomacy, combining clear pressure for an  inclusive and fair election with clear commitment to non-interference in Iraqi internal affairs and the withdrawal timeline, appears to have worked.  Go figure.

Here are some details which have emerged.  The decision appears to include all of the affected candidates and political entities, though those candidates who had already been swapped out apparently won't be let back.  Al-Arabiya reports that their cases will be reviewed after the election, as Vice President Joseph Biden had suggested, though I haven't seen this reported elsewhere yet.   Saleh al-Mutlak, whose ban received the most attention, and his list have declared their satisfaction with the decision and claimed that it demonstrated that they had been right to reject the constitutionality of the decision.  Supporters of the Accountability and Justice Commission's bans are complaining bitterly, and warning that it will open new problems down the road.  

While the resolution appears to have been managed within Iraqi institutions, the U.S. criticism of the deBaathification bans had been mounting in recent days.  Ambassador Christopher Hill had sharply criticized the moves, as had  General Petraeus, while Vice President Biden and President Obama (among others) had pushed the point with the succession of Iraqi leaders who have come to Washington DC in recent days (don't tell Henry Kissinger, who very oddly complains today in the Washington Post that Iraqi leaders aren't being invited to DC despite the very recent visits of Barzani, Abed al-Mahdi, and Hashemi).  But it has done this without compromising its commitment to the drawdown and the SOFA, while consistently being sensitive to Iraqi concerns about overt U.S. interference, and by appealing to the self-interest of Iraqi politicians that the election be viewed as legitimate by the international community.  This appears to be a job well done by Obama's Iraq team, in a difficult and very sensitive context. 

The disqualification of some 500 candidates for the March 7 Iraqi Parliamentary election by the Accountability and Justice (deBaathification) commission headed by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi has reportedly been overturned only days before the launch of the election campaign.  The Independent Higher Election Commission has said that it received instructions from the Appeals Court to throw out the disqualifications, and would proceed accordingly.  Details remain sketchy, since this happened too late for today’s edition of most Arab and Iraqi newspapers, but from what I’ve pieced together it looks like the crisis has been averted (see Reidar Visser’s ongoing coverage of the crisis here).  Once again Iraq has not unraveled, and Iraqis have figured out how to prevent their own system from collapsing around them.   Quiet U.S. diplomacy, combining clear pressure for an  inclusive and fair election with clear commitment to non-interference in Iraqi internal affairs and the withdrawal timeline, appears to have worked.  Go figure.

Here are some details which have emerged.  The decision appears to include all of the affected candidates and political entities, though those candidates who had already been swapped out apparently won’t be let back.  Al-Arabiya reports that their cases will be reviewed after the election, as Vice President Joseph Biden had suggested, though I haven’t seen this reported elsewhere yet.   Saleh al-Mutlak, whose ban received the most attention, and his list have declared their satisfaction with the decision and claimed that it demonstrated that they had been right to reject the constitutionality of the decision.  Supporters of the Accountability and Justice Commission’s bans are complaining bitterly, and warning that it will open new problems down the road.  

While the resolution appears to have been managed within Iraqi institutions, the U.S. criticism of the deBaathification bans had been mounting in recent days.  Ambassador Christopher Hill had sharply criticized the moves, as had  General Petraeus, while Vice President Biden and President Obama (among others) had pushed the point with the succession of Iraqi leaders who have come to Washington DC in recent days (don’t tell Henry Kissinger, who very oddly complains today in the Washington Post that Iraqi leaders aren’t being invited to DC despite the very recent visits of Barzani, Abed al-Mahdi, and Hashemi).  But it has done this without compromising its commitment to the drawdown and the SOFA, while consistently being sensitive to Iraqi concerns about overt U.S. interference, and by appealing to the self-interest of Iraqi politicians that the election be viewed as legitimate by the international community.  This appears to be a job well done by Obama’s Iraq team, in a difficult and very sensitive context. 

This doesn’t mean that all is now rosy.  The elections, as I wrote yesterday, may still very well fail to produce "meaningful change" (however this is defined) and could still lead to disappointment and frustration among the losers.  The process of forming a new government after the elections could prove explosive and drawn-out.   Everyone — Iraqis, Americans and other international actors — should be proactive about avoiding problems such as those which hamstrung the recent Afghan elections (or even the Iranian election or the 2005 Iraqi election).  The first step is to do everything possible to help ensure a free, transparent, and clean election — which should include a robust system of international monitors (whether American, UN, EU or independent NGO), as many Iraqi political leaders (including Vice President Hashemi yesterday) have requested.

But that’s for tomorrow.  For now, a sigh of relief that the political crisis over the election ban appears to have been averted — a good sign for the ability of Iraqis to save themselves from such logjams, and a credit to the Obama administration’s approach.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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