Hayder al-Khoei writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Bickering is still very much the order of the day in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has just won a second term, may have a functioning government that enjoys the confidence of parliament, but that is no reason to celebrate. Not yet anyway. There is still a war of words (and thankfully, it remains just a war of words) over the remit of the proposed ‘National Council for Strategic Policies’, and confusion also surrounds the fate of the de-Ba’athification commission set up by the American ‘civil administrator’ of Iraq, Paul Bremer, on 16 May 2003.
Maliki must simultaneously prove he is ready to loosen his grip on power and allow for one more layer of scrutiny of the Iraqi government and also readdress the thorny issue of de-Ba’athification, which has taken an ugly sectarian overtone.
CPA Order No.1 was the first official law signed by the new US provisional government in Iraq intended to pave the way for the ‘De-Ba’athification of Iraqi society’. A year later, it became obvious that de-Ba’athification was going horribly wrong and Bremer decided to rescind the commission. Like many other Americans blunders in Iraq, it was too little too late. The commission lived on, and a new 2008 law, passed by the Iraqi parliament, created its successor, the Justice and Accountability Commission. The name may have changed, but its leadership and modus operandi certainly didn’t.
Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution, adopted in 2005, made it crystal clear that the Ba’ath Party, under any circumstances, may not be part of political pluralism in Iraq. There is hardly any disagreement on this issue. The problem however, is that de-Ba’athification is being used as a political weapon to discredit opponents of Iraq’s new political elite. It just so happens to be a Shia-dominated elite.
The real long-term legacy of Saddam’s Iraq was not that it was a confessional sectarian Ba’ath supremacy; it was the perception by the Shia masses that the Sunni sect was ruling them. Similarly, de-Ba’athification in today’s Iraq may not necessary be fuelled by a sectarian agenda, but the perception that it is, and may continue to be, is dangerous in such a politically volatile country where mere whim is enough to ignite conflict.
In the previous general elections around 500 candidates, mostly members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, were arbitrarily banned from contesting, ostensibly on the grounds of their political affiliation to the Ba’ath. The Iraqi appeals court overturned some of the disqualifications but the vast majority of candidates either chose not to appeal at all, or had had their appeals rejected. The previous walkout from parliament, by the Iraqiya bloc, headed by the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, partly revolved around the decision not to reconsider the fate of some of its members – most notably Dhafir al-Ani and Saleh al-Mutleg (the latter has since been given the post of deputy prime minister).
The irony here is that the men in charge of the Justice and Accountability Commission, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, are themselves dubious and members of a political bloc that contested the elections they were supervising.
The whole purpose of de-Ba’athification, in theory at least, is to guarantee that no politicians with Iraqi blood on their hands are allowed to take part in governance. In reality, even proponents of de-Ba’athification understand the hypocrisy of this one-sided justice.
Maliki’s new government is being supported by the Sadrist “outlaws” he fought in 2008, and yet Moqtada al-Sadr, still wanted by the Iraqi judiciary for murder, is going to play a key political role in Iraq for the next 4 years. Another senior Sadrist, Hakim al-Zamili, is implicated in the kidnapping, and likely death, of a former Da’wa colleague of Maliki but is now rubbing shoulders with the new Baghdad elite. Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of a militia whose members formed death squads out of Ministry of Interior police commandos, is now the new Transport Minister.
So why do Iraq’s new elite object to the inclusion of ex-Ba’athists in the political process when they themselves have criminals in their ranks who have Iraqi blood on their hands?
The de-Ba’athification commission was set up to bar candidates implicated in crimes committed pre-2003 but there has been no commission set up to deal with the post-2003 criminals, especially the militias and death squad members who have maintained a legacy of kidnapping, extrajudicial executions and armed insurgency. The objection could be explained solely in a sectarian political context if it wasn’t for the Machiavellian obsession with power and the reality on the streets of Iraq. Many of the victims of the Shia militia have been fellow Shia, be they political opponents or members of the Iraqi security forces. Yet the Shia themselves are at best indifferent, and at worse complicit, when it comes to these crimes because it allows them to retain power.
It is naïve to presume the next Iraqi government can make huge strides in reconciliation and work coherently as a power-sharing body. Its very existence is proof that self-centred party agendas supersede all considerations of integrity, equality and justice that all the parties claimed to champion prior to elections. However, if there are politicians in the next government who still have a conscience, they must convince all Iraqis that the political process is still the most attractive option.
But inclusion is not merely enough. Power sharing means nothing when it is not underpinned by constitutional conventions that seek to combat corruption and crime with a neutral, objective and non-sectarian agenda. Maliki must understand that a token ministry here and there is not going to solve the crisis. This shrewd move may very well keep him in power for the next 4 years, but it isn’t going to solve the corrupt political system in Iraq.
Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies in London.