The Iraqi DeBaath Fiasco Continues

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

Iraq: Mr. Abdul Mehdi Goes to Washington

 Guest Post by Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress

In advance of Iraq’s elections in March, several Iraqi leaders are coming to Washington to meet with Obama administration officials, and Vice President Joe Biden is rumored to be preparing a series of meetings on the subject with the national security principals later this month.  Yesterday, the White House hosted Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mehdi, one of two vice presidents and a leading figure in the Shia party Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, in a meeting that didn’t attract any media attention. 

The Iraqi embassy invited me to a small meeting at DC’s Ritz Carlton with Abdul Mehdi, and he said he had just come from the White House meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden.  The conservation, attended by a small number of the usual Iraq policy nerds from think tanks, was wide-ranging.  Here are two key points, not including one tantalizing tidbit about Iraq’s elections that Abdul Mehdi pulled off the record.   

Wants U.S. disengagement and more mature, but privileged, relationship with U.S.  Abdul Mehdi said that the bilateral relations were moving towards a “more mature” phase, andhe stressed that the Obama administration’s “disengagement policy corresponds to exactly what we want.”  This probably disappointed some of the policy analysts in the room, some of whom have advocated an extended, years-long U.S. presence that goes beyond troop withdrawal timelines agreed to in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.  Iraqi leaders have been reasserting their sovereignty for years now, and too many Beltway analysts still ignore the reality that Iraqis want control of their country back. They still delude themselves that the United States can constructively direct Iraqi politics through foreign military sales and security force training programs.   

Abdul Mehdi did make the customary pitch that Iraq is a strategic country for the United States in the region, and he also expects “we both will need privileged relations with each other.”  When asked about the size of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – with reports of expansion plans not receiving much attention – the vice president said he “can’t imagine just a simple U.S. embassy in Iraq.”   

The vice president also raised the importance of economic ties between Iraq and the United States and expressed disappointment that U.S. firms have not invested more in Iraq.  “I wish oil companies would have been more aggressive than Chinese companies,” he said.  This concern – that the United States isn’t moving quickly enough to build more comprehensive economic and cultural ties with Iraq in addition to the military-to-military relationship as outlined in the bilateral strategic framework agreement – is becoming a common refrain from Iraqi leaders I’ve met recently. 

On Iran.  Abdul Mehdi, who noted that on his way back to Iraq he will go via Iran as he often does, said that the United States and Iran were “in many cases, the only two countries that supported Iraq.”   

He highlighted his personal involvement in arranging direct meetings between the United States and Iraq, a “mediation” role he has talked about publicly before.  Many forget that the Bush administration allowed direct engagement between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Iraq.   

The diplomatic impasse with Iran over its nuclear program continues, and Abdul Mehdi offered little on what he thought regarding Iran’s internal fights.  He noted that for decades, Iran was not a “friendly part of regional policies,” and that it was important to try to “domesticate Iran within the rules of the game.”  He also noted that “if Iran wants to make the days of U.S. troops in Iraq a hell, they can do so.” 

Much more was said, in particular about the upcoming elections and recent barring of nearly 500 candidates from the elections as well as the continued swirling rumors about the possibility of a military coup in Iraq.  Iraq has faded from the headlines recently, but as I've noted in recent pieces including this one, many issues remain unresolved and Iraq is bound to jump back up higher on the priority list in 2010.