On 13 February 2010, Iraq’s secular Iraqiya list – a secular political coalition consisting of Sunni and Shi’ite politicians – announced that it had temporarily suspended its campaign to participate in the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections. The move comes in direct response to a decision by Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Committee to ban approximately 72 of Iraqiya‘s members from the parliamentary elections, along with other politicians with suspected links to the Ba’ath Party of former President Saddam Hussein. The ban, which blacklists close to 500 parliamentary candidates, risks stoking sectarian tensions in Iraq as the majority of barred politicians are from Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Although 28 names on the original blacklist have been cleared by an appeals panel, political tensions remain high in Baghdad. The banning of such prominent Sunni figures as Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani – both sitting MPs – has proven to be particularly controversial given their level of public support. Al-Mutlaq, who was expected to perform well in the elections, is regarded as the second most powerful individual in the Iraqiya list following Ayad Allawi - a former prime minister and one-time ally of the Bush administration. Dhafir al-Ani is regarded as the third most influential candidate in the Iraqiya list.
The banning of individuals with suspected links to the Ba’ath Party has raised fears by members of Iraq’s Sunni community that senior Shi’ite figures in the political establishment are set on purging the Sunni from Iraqi politics by using the Ba’athist card as a justification to do so. However, Iraqi officials maintain that the disqualification process does not target any particular community, pointing out that Shi’ite politicians are amongst those who have been barred as well.
Many Sunni Iraqis nonetheless believe that vows by Iraq’s Shi’ite parties, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, to purge the civil service of Ba’athists comes as a revenge for Saddam Hussein’s oppression of the country’s Shi’ite majority and minority Kurds during his 24-year rule. Other Iraqi voters believe that the government’s line against the Ba’athists is intended to divert attention from endemic corruption (which is categorised as extreme in Maplecroft’s Corruption and Transparency Index), the lack of public services and continuous level of insecurity in the run up to the parliamentary elections.
This is not to deny the progress that has been made in reducing the number of civilian casualties from terrorist attacks at the hands of al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents in Iraq, including former Ba’athists. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in violence fell from approximately 9,230 in 2008 to about 4,500 in 2009 (between 1 January 2009 until 16 December 2009), according to Iraq Body Count. In the late summer of 2009, Iraq witnessed 200 attacks a week, compared to 1,700 attacks a week in late 2006 and early 2007 – the peak period of violence. However, such progress remains fragile and may be reversed, as witnessed on 25 January when three car bombs rocked well-known hotels in Baghdad, killing at least 36 people. Iraq, along with Pakistan and Somalia, is an extreme risk country in Maplecroft’s Terrorism Risk Index.
Although Prime Minister al-Maliki wants to distract attention from the incumbent government’s own shortcomings in the run up to the elections, his failure to condemn the Accountability and Justice Committee’s decision may backfire. Local reporting reveals that the majority of Iraqis are tired of sectarian violence and, by extension, political tensions. Al-Maliki’s understanding of such views underpinned his electoral success during the January 2009 provincial polls, when his State of Law coalition – consisting of Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurdish, secularist and Arab nationalists elements of Iraqi society – won 38% of votes in Baghdad and 37% in southern Iraq’s city of Basra. Al-Maliki’s pledge to rise above the sectarian divide and embrace Iraqi nationalism while also laying emphasis on law-and-order and the need for a strong state clearly paid off. However, his level of public support has reportedly dwindled over the course of 2009 – a fact which may account for his reluctance to condemn the Accountability and Justice Committee’s recent decision. Such a position may be conceived by the Shi’ite public, which represent 60% - 65% of Iraq’s population, as being soft on former Ba’athists and would conflict with his stated commitment to bring Saddam Hussein’s henchmen to justice.
Iraq’s Sunni politicians are in the meantime more than aware that boycotting the parliamentary vote – as they did in 2005 – is only likely to disenfranchise large segments of the Sunni community and lead to greater instability in Iraq. Moreover, such a move would play into the hands of both al-Qaeda, which wants to disrupt the election process, and former Ba'athists.
The crisis is not intractable, as reflected in the number of crises which have now been dealt with but previously threatened to plunge the country into deep political turmoil. For instance, Iraq’s election law was stalled for weeks when MPs argued over its contents, but ended up agreeing in December 2009 to adopt a voting system with an ‘open’ rather than a ‘closed’ list. This allows the electorate to select individual candidates rather than being forced to select complete party lists when voting. As with the most nettlesome and intractable political issues in Iraq, US mediation will help to offset tensions between Iraq’s various political interest groups. Political tensions resulting from the banning of individuals with suspected links to the Ba’athist party is therefore likely to be diffused.
Anthony Skinner is Principal Analyst of Maplecroft Consulting