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Debaathication vs. reconciliation? The decision to ban Saleh al-Mutlaq from standing in the Iraqi election

The Iraqi Accountability and Justice Commission's decision to ban former Baathist Saleh al-Mutlaq from standing in the forthcoming election threatens to derail the process of reconciliation in the country and provoke a crisis in Iraqi politics.

Mohammed Hussainy
27 January 2010

It does not matter whether or not the decision the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) made to ban the candidate, Saleh al-Mutlaq, from taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq has been in line ad verbatim with Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution.  What is rather more important is that such a decision should take heed of the spirit of the Constitution which is supposed to call for a unified Iraq that is free of all ethnic and sectarian tensions.  So did the AJC take national reconciliation into consideration when it took its decision?

Al-Mutlaq had been a member of the now dissolved Baath Party – officially, he was a member until the late 1970s.  Unofficially, however, al-Mutlaq has maintained contacts with the Baath Party on many levels, but none that might qualify as serious affiliations to the extent that he should be banned from running for office. Like many other eminent Iraqi politicians, al-Mutlaq has been involved in the political process in Iraq since the United States-led invasion in 2003. Al-Mutlaq has not tried to conceal his antagonism towards the religious parties or Iranian influence in Iraq.  Given his consistency, what new development prompted the AJC to take a decision which will have political and security repercussions that far exceed the consequences of whether al-Mutlaq merely served as a member of parliament or not?

Al-Mutlaq's case has to be understood from several perspectives.  Let us start with the key pretext of ACJ's decision – the fact that al-Mutlaq has been promoting Baathist ideas apart from his historical ties with the Baathists.  The ACJ considers such a justification the constitutional grounds on which it based its decision to ban al-Mutlaq. But what about the others who served as former members of the Baath Party, and were ranking members among the Party leadership before deciding to join other political powers following the disbanding of the Baath party?  These individuals now assume significant positions in many political entities; they have become members of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties.  Why has Saleh al-Mutlaq been treated as an exception when allies of the former Saddam Hussein regime rank among the leaders of Iraqi parties? Some of these leaders took sides with Saddam on military and security-based grounds hoping that they might use his help against their opponents.

Advocates of banning Saleh al-Mutlaq have cited his political conduct in the Iraqi Parliament and the statements he made to the media as casting doubt on his allegiance and loyalty – his conduct and statements left him open to speculation as to his true intentions.  Behind the scenes, an Iraqi diplomat took the matter further and described Saleh al-Mutlaq as "Saddam Hussein's representative in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR)."  Yet, this Iraqi diplomat maintained that such a description is built upon an inference based on a number of statements and rumours of al-Mutlaq's connections with Saddam's widow, Sajeda Telfah, as there are claims that al-Mutlaq has been managing her commercial business.  It is worth mentioning that many individuals sought protection or access to personal gains in the past by tapping into the circuits of ties with the then ruling Baath Party. Yet most of these persons were not close to Saddam himself, for this narrow cabal was composed exclusively of key decision-makers and those who were directly responsible for carrying out Saddam’s political crimes.

Others speak of documents that prove that al-Mutlaq has been connected with the former regime's intelligence agency.  I have myself seen some of these documents, yet I found none that, in my opinion, can be used to ban al-Mutlaq and deny him the right to run in the upcoming elections.

Of course, al-Mutlaq is no angel who suddenly descended from heaven to join the Iraqi arena.  Like many other individuals who play important roles in the Iraqi political muddle, doubts are raised concerning al-Mutlaq.  He had contacts with the United States that enabled him to join the political game in post-Saddam Iraq since al-Mutlaq has been seen as counterweight that achieves balance vis-à-vis the religious Shi'ite powers.  His ties with Washington cannot be disregarded, even if al-Mutlaq or the Americans themselves deny that such a relationship exists.

Naturally, al-Mutlaq has managed to rally considerable support among Sunni Arabs; he promoted himself as a tough politician who demonstrates a die-hard attitude with regards to the relationship with Iran.  He also represents the secular movement that is well received among Sunnis. Likewise, al-Mutlaq's robust and extreme attitudes with reference to the question of Iraq’s Arab identity have been instrumental in increasing the number of his supporters among Sunni Arabs who maintain that Iraq’s connection to the wider Arab world is central to its national identity.  Al-Mutlaq has profited from Sunni Arab’s emotional attachment to their right to be involved in decision making as the custodians of Iraq's political legacy. Sunnis continue to feel excluded from Iraqi politics, having not been able to play the political role they have long been used to playing within most of Iraq’s former regimes.

Al-Mutlaq's attitudes and positions in this regard have not only been met with responsiveness at home but have had positive ramifications in his relationships with most Arab countries concerned by the religious Shi'ite parties assumption of power, particularly those that have been connected to Iran one way or another.  Hence, many Arab states were prompted to develop strong ties with al-Mutlaq and other anti-Iranian Iraqi politicians.

However, al-Mutlaq attitude in dealing with almost every political issue in Iraq has created a lack of trust between him and other political powers.  Al-Mutlaq missed no opportunity to express his admiration for the Baath Party.  In a television interview, al-Mutlaq went so far as to affirm that Baath is the best party on the Iraqi political scene. In the wake of an official and popular wariness of seeing the Baathists back in power, such blunders may cost him significant political capital.

The legal foundation the AJC used to ban al-Mutlaq and his political entity from taking part in the upcoming elections raises two key points.  The first pertains to the provision of Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution that addresses promoting Saddamist Baathist ideology; the article does not talk of the Baath Party in general, and this is where the difference lies.  The ideological and organizational foundations of the Baath Party had been established before Saddam Hussein, who himself terminated many of the Baathists who opposed him.  Eventually, the legal interpretation of the said article would be to incriminate promoting the Saddamist Baathist ideas only.  Secondly, it puts into question what powers the AJC has. The AJC does not have the right to ban political entities, for such a matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq (IHEC) whereas the ACJ powers are restricted to jurisdiction over individuals only. The recently-formed Constitutional Tribunal will have the final say in settling the matter legally.

Ever since the decision to ban al-Mutlaq, his case has become a central point of debate in Iraqi politics. This has been evident throughout the various meetings I recently had with many Iraqi political leaders, all of whom had their own interpretation of the event. Some were completely adamant, since they see in al-Mutlaq a symbol of restoring the Baathists to power – a matter that should not be taken lightly indeed.  Others adopted a little more medial position and believe that the independent judiciary will settle the case.

For his part, Saleh al-Mutlaq moved in more than one direction.  He accepted scathing criticism at the AJC on certain occasions, whereas he implored Iraqi or pan-Arab powers for support on others. His pleas drew a significant response, with the League of Arab States (LAS) dispatching a delegation to meet the Iraqi president, Jalal Talbani.  The delegation has sparked controversy; some accused the Arab states of hypocracy, having not previously bothered with Iraqi affairs and having left Iraq on its own since 2003, now they hurry to show support for al-Mutlaq!

To counter the pan-Arab support he received, a significant force aims at banning and excluding al-Mutlaq. Iranian-backed figures seek to exclude al-Mutlaq not because they are wary of him, but rather because they are keen on instigating political chaos and achieving electoral gains in the process. What influence Iran and its protégés have on AJC decisions is called into question. Mere suspicions, doubts or rumours that the decision to ban al-Mutlaq is related to the Iranian intervention would trigger Sunni-Arabs to coalesce around al-Mutlaq, uniting even those that do not share al-Mutlaq's attitudes.

Al-Mutlaq has been caught in a conundrum.  On the one hand, he cannot afford to look like he is helpless, which would undermine his powerful image among his supporters; on the other, he knows what it would take to rally the support of other powerhouses, at least the moderate ones among them, to intervene.  He knows quite well how to play the political game, and that the support he needs will not be brought about without having to strike a political deal that might compromise his publicly declared positions.  For example, al-Mutlaq has asked a senior Iraqi politician to intervene and help out; the politician expressed his willingness to testify in court that al-Mutlaq supported the Iraqi opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime. Yet al-Mutlaq has asked that politician not to raise the issue, for he feared it might undermine his credibility among his supporters; that is the crux of al-Mutlaq's dilemma.

What matters most here is the impact that a decision to ban al-Mutlaq would have on the efforts toward achieving national reconciliation in Iraq.  Frankly, such a decision can but incur negative repercussions on the reconciliation and democratic process. Initial reactions from al-Mutlaq's supporters, particularly his political allies, give a clear impression that the electoral process is bound to enter a prolonged period of crisis if the decision to ban al-Mutlaq is enforced.

Al-Mutlaq's current ally, former Prime Minister Iyyad Allawi, threatened that the Iraqi List would boycott the upcoming elections.  Others will definitely follow suit and adopt Allawi's position – a genuine and dangerous threat that haunts these elections.  It seems that the country is bound to set a course that runs against the overall trend of invoking more political participation and engagement, bringing back memories of the Iraqi National Assembly Elections that were boycotted by most Sunni Arabs – yet this time it will be even more dangerous.

The fear that some Iraqi powers show with reference to the restoration of the so called "Saddamist Baathism" through Saleh al-Mutlaq or any other political figure, for that matter, must not be dealt with through bans and exclusion.  Such decisions will only backfire in the long run; Iraqis of all persuasions should instead take part in pushing forward with the national reconciliation process by prizing common national interests over their narrow sectarian and ethnic counterparts.  Iraqis have to do more in order to create a true democratic environment, for democracy alone can prevent the restoration of any form of dictatorship.  A case in point would be to consider the example of Germany.  Those involved in the crimes committed by the Nazi Party were put to trial, but after the resumption of democracy in West Germany in 1949, lay members were not denied their rights to be politically involved. Despite the fact that neo-Nazi parties exist in Germany, they have not achieved major political victories and remain on the extreme margins of German politics.

The political establishment in Iraq should show more faith in the ability of Iraqi citizens to make a choice and differentiate between what is right and what is wrong, provided that it is done in a sound environment free from sectarian and ethnic tensions, petulance and foreign interventions.  What is required is to stand up and defend national reconciliation in Iraq as it is the sole means to build a genuine true democratic system, one that is distanced from sectarian and ethnic allotment. A flourishing, genuine democracy would then be the most successful means to prevent the restoration of any dictatorship under any nomenclature or capacity.

All officials in the Iraqi state should be able to differentiate between their electoral interests and their responsibilities toward their country; the term "de-Baathification" (uprooting or extraction of Baathist elements) should never serve as a preamble to "de-Reconciliation".

A European ambassador to Baghdad told me that he is positive that al-Mutlaq's case would eventually be resolved, but he maintained that what is even more important is the negative impact it will have on the relationships among the various components and groups that compose the Iraqi people. Partisan decision making in constitutional matters can only do more harm than good.

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openDemocracy received the following statement from the Islamic Dawa party, the Shi'ite party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who strongly support the decision to ban al-Mutlaq's candidacy.

When the Accountability and Justice Law was passed in January 2008, it was hailed by the international community as a significant milestone towards achieving political reconciliation and long term stability. It was considered by the United States a key legislative benchmark and an indicator of political success. The law’s predecessor, the de-Baathification Law, was seen as excessively harsh, excluding low-ranking former Baath Party members had been absolved of any crimes against the Iraqi people.

The passing of the Accountability and Justice Law, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Council of Representatives, was also seen as a symbolic acknowledgement that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs were an integral part of the political process. However, the new law maintained the constitutional principle that senior Baathists and pro-Saddam sympathisers should have no part in the democratic process.

It is therefore ironic that the Accountability and Justice Commission’s decision to bar 511 candidates from participating in the elections has caused some members of the international community to express serious concerns about the exclusion of these candidates, even calling into question the Commission’s legitimacy. Some political commentators and journalists have described the recent developments as a threat to democracy and warned of a looming political crisis.

Even more alarming are the accusations that the barring of candidates is an attempt to exclude Sunni Arabs from the political process. For most Iraqis, these accusations are a stark reminder of the sectarian rhetoric that was so predominant in the early years of post-Saddam Iraq. In reality, all the main political blocs have candidates who have been included in the Commission’s list, with two-thirds of them being Shias. Their exclusion from a list of over six thousand candidates will in no way diminish the inclusive nature of the upcoming elections.

Those who have objected to the Accountability and Justice Commission’s work claim to do so in the interests of free and fair democratic elections. However, their alarmist reaction is simply stoking the very sectarianism that Iraqis have fought so hard to overcome. The baseless accusations that the government is influencing the Commission’s decisions may indicate an underlying misunderstanding of the political dynamics in Iraq. Alternatively, it may suggest a deliberate attempt by some to tarnish the credibility of Prime Minister Al-Maliki and his coalition. Either way, these claims conveniently ignore the basic democratic and pluralist framework within which the Commission operates.

The Commission’s work is overseen by a separate parliamentary committee composed of representatives from all Iraq’s political blocs, which has concurred with the vast majority of names on the list. In addition, barred candidates have the right to appeal to a seven-member panel of judges, who were approved by a majority vote in parliament only last week. The government, which is also represented by the majority of Iraq’s political blocs, has no say in the entire process.

Those who have sided with the excluded candidates have also ignored the genuine threat that Baath Party sympathisers pose to democracy in Iraq. It is the very same Baath Party that bred a culture of totalitarianism for thirty-five years, recklessly waged wars with its neighbours and threatened international peace and security. The presence of politicians who continue to defend such actions would not be tolerated in any established democracy. And yet there are Iraqi parliamentarians who openly defend the crimes of the former regime, and accuse those who stood against it of treason. The Baath Party has yet to admit any wrongdoing, and refuses to apologize to the families of their victims. Iraq’s determination to marginalize the Baath Party and its ideology is therefore no different from the international community’s intolerance of the Nazi party.

All Iraqis, whether Sunnis, Shias, Kurds or Christians, were victims of Saddam’s regime. They have moved on from the sectarian rhetoric that attempts to caricature the complex dynamic of Iraqi society. Perhaps it is time for some sections of the international community to follow suit and accept that the new democratic Iraq operates under entirely different terms.

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