The Cable

Obama administration plays quiet role in Iraq elections controversy

The Obama administration has been actively, but quietly working with both sides in the Iraqi elections controversy, which is getting ugly over in Baghdad. There’s a lot of criticism in Washington today of the Obama team’s approach to the aftermath of the Iraqi national elections last month. Leading conservatives are accusing the administration of taking ...

The Obama administration has been actively, but quietly working with both sides in the Iraqi elections controversy, which is getting ugly over in Baghdad.

There’s a lot of criticism in Washington today of the Obama team’s approach to the aftermath of the Iraqi national elections last month. Leading conservatives are accusing the administration of taking too much of a hands-off approach as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki works to get enough candidates disqualified to turn the tide toward his State of Law list and away from the Iraqi List led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"The United States might be about to lose an opportunity for success in Iraq by tolerating a highly sectarian, politicized move to overturn Iraq’s election results," scholars Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in Friday’s Washington Post. "Washington must act swiftly to defend the integrity of the electoral process and support Iraqi leaders’ tentative efforts to rein in the ‘de-Baathification’ commission that threatens to undermine the entire democratic process … Staying silent is not the same as remaining neutral."

Administration officials maintain that this is exactly what it is doing, even if the public can’t see it.

"The administration has been deeply engaged in this process from the beginning, at every level, with Ambassador [Christopher] Hill, General [Raymond] Odierno, the vice president, and others frequently making our views known and offering our assistance where appropriate," one senior administration official told The Cable, noting that Vice President Joseph Biden has been in regular contact with Iraqi leaders since the election.

The administration’s effort is about process, being careful not to openly criticize either side but still setting down some clear definitions about what a fair process should look like.

"As we’ve said all along, it is for Iraqis to decide these matters," the official said. "But it is imperative for the credibility of the elections and of the election certification process… that the procedures be fair and transparent. It is also imperative that every vote count and no Iraqi be disenfranchised."

What that means practically is that if and when candidates are disqualified, their parties should have a right to replace them as if they won a seat and to retain their votes if they did not.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening on the ground in Baghdad, according to James Danly, a former platoon commander in Iraq who is now a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, the think tank run by Kimberly Kagan.

He said that the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC), which happens to be controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, is clearly trying to swing the close election to Maliki’s more religious Shiite list and away from Allawi’s more secular list, which derives some support from Sunni groups.

Hill and General Odierno heavily criticized Chalabi’s commission before the elections, when it tried to disqualify hundreds of candidates due to their alleged ties to the now-defunct Baath Party. They both have said that Chalabi is "clearly influenced by Iran."

ISW has prepared charts showing the current state of play in the post-election politics. They aim to show that if the Independent High Electoral Commission upholds the decisions of the AJC, that could tip the balance away from Allawi and give Maliki the chance to form a government by himself.

"The AJC is not only trying to get rid of the candidates that were elected, they are also trying to throw out the ballots that were cast for those candidates," Danly explained, which would be in direct violation of what the White House considers a fair and transparent process.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, agrees with the Kagans that U.S. influence and even pressure should be applied to help encourage a fair outcome. But he also agrees with the White House that such pressure is better applied behind the scenes.

"Continued U.S. involvement like that is necessary and appropriate. We cannot tolerate an extra democratic process here and we need to do what we can to prevent that," Biddle said, noting that the State Department traditionally has a more hands-off approach than the military, which has argued for more direct intervention.

The real problem with the elections process now is ambiguity about how the commissions are making their decisions, Biddle said, as well as uncertainty about whether Maliki is trying to strong-arm his way to a win or simply trying to play every card in his hand.

And there will be many more twists and turns before either candidate can declare victory. The recount of votes in Baghdad, which starts Saturday, could turn the whole story upside down once again.

Regardless, if the victor takes power in a process that is deemed by the Iraqi people as illegitimate, that could reignite the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq for years, just as U.S. troops are leaving.

"We’re way early in the process of civil war remission to expect that sectarianism is gone," said Biddle. "That’s why a lack of democratic credibility here could be very dangerous."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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