As the disqualification of some 500 leading Iraqi politicians on the grounds of alleged ties to the Baath Party is continuing to roil Iraqi politics, Arab papers today report that both U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Vice President Joseph Biden have been intervening with Iraqi officials in an attempt to find a way to walk back the disastrous decision -- perhaps by postponing the implementation of the committee's decisions until after the election. The commission in turn is complaining about foreign interference, while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki broke his silence by calling to "not politicize" the process (a bit late for that, no?) and some Iraqi outlets are screaming about alleged American threats. There is still a chance that the appeals process could provide an exit strategy, but this doesn't seem hugely likely at this point; the final list of those disqualified is set to be released tomorrow.
Iraqi politicians, especially those associated with Mutlak's bloc such as Ayad Allawi and Tareq al-Hashemi, have been loudly complaining about alleged conflict of interest and abuse of power behind the moves. The indefatigable Norwegian researcher Reider Visser deserves credit for unearthing that Ali Faysal al-Lami, who spent about a year in a U.S.-run prison on charges of complicity with attacks by Shia militias and runs the Parliamentary committee responsible for the disqualifications, is actually standing for election on Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress list. Visser, like a number of Iraqi analysts, argue that they are using their official positions to stack the deck in their own favor: "It is they who effectively control the vetting process for the entire elections process. They enjoy full support in this from Iran; meanwhile their leaders are being feted in Washington, where Adil Abd al-Mahdi has just been visiting." The committee's defenders claim that it is simply enforcing the law. Finally, the editor of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat complains that Iran's allies in Iraq are using their control of the mechanisms of Iraqi democracy to seize power for themselves on behalf of Iran -- and the similarity between the DeBaath "vetting" of candidates and Iran's Guardians Council's vettting of candidates has been noted.
This is a potential fiasco in the making, but shouldn't come as such a great shock even if it is unusually brazen. There's nothing new about the unresolved sectarian conflicts in Iraq, the ongoing failure to institutionalize Sunni integration into the Shia-dominated political system, the failure to implement political accommodation agreements, or the ways the institutional levers of the state were being used by "the powers that be" to maintain their dominance. The combination of improved security, the self-interest of a wide range of Iraqi groups and politicians, and the clear U.S. commitment to drawing down its military forces have generated some real positive progress but the unresolved institutional and political conflicts remain clearly evident. This current tempest increases the prospects that the March elections will not deliver the legitimacy or the resolution of deep underlying conflicts which so many people have counted upon --- which was the reason for my skepticism about pegging the U.S. drawdown to the elections in the first place.
It would be far better if Iraqis could reach agreement on issues like the election law and this current frenzy without intense American involvement. But since the U.S. did decide to peg its military drawdown to the election there's little choice now but for Biden and Hill and others to get as involved as they have been over the last few days to try to find a solution. But under no circumstances should this become an excuse to delay the military drawdown, which would simply remove the only incentive Iraqi politicians have to make political accommodations, infuriate Iraqi public opinion, and trap the U.S. there indefinitely. There's no contradiction between insisting on maintaining a clear and firm commitment to military drawdown and calling for close attention to Iraqi politics. Indeed, more attention to politics and less focus on the military dimension is exactly what has been called for all along -- and hopefully this crisis will be worked out and the right lessons learned on all sides.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.