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The damage to the Iraqi elections is already done

I've been too busy dealing with the DC Snowpocalypse to blog this week. There have been some interesting developments in stories which I follow, though, which I wanted to at least briefly comment upon. First up, Iraq, where the de-Ba'athification circus is continuing. My hopes from last week that the Appeals Court had put an end to the crisis were premature, as a dizzying series of political and institutional manuevers have kept it very much alive. You can get a good summary of the state of play here, and check out excellent analysis from Gregg Carlstrom, Mike Hanna and Reider Visser.

Over the last few days, the Appeals Court's dismissal of the de-Ba'athification verdicts fell apart. The Presidency Council stepped in before a scheduled emergency session of Parliament could be convened, overruled the dismissal and determined that all the appeals should be heard by February 12. There are conflicting reports on how this is playing out, but the latest news is that the IHEC released a list of 6712 approved candidates which did not include Saleh al-Mutlak or Dhafer al-Ani, the two most prominent banned Sunni candidates (this presumably could change tomorrow). Calls to delay the elections to allow the vetting process time to play out have (thankfully) been brushed aside, while Mutlak is threatening a boycott. Meanwhile, street protests for and against the de-Ba'athification bans are merging seamlessly into the supposedly yet to begin election campaigns, while the Baathist witch-hunt is spreading to the local level with potentially dangerous consequences.

I still expect this to work out in one way or the other and for the elections to go ahead, and for some Sunni politicians to take advantage of any attempt by others to boycott. I don't expect it to lead directly to a return of the insurgency. But at the same time, by this point significant damage has probably already been done no matter how (and even if) the crisis is worked out. The prospects for the March 7 election to be a transformative event heralding a new Iraq, with fresh leadership, robust legal institutions and a post-sectarian complexion now seem scant. The legitimacy of the electoral process and the independence of Iraqi institutions have been thrown into serious question among both Iraqis and the international community. Sunni-Shia resentments have been rekindled, with such polarization evidently being seen as a winning electoral strategy in certain quarters. Sunni participation may well be depressed, though a full-out boycott is unlikely. The damage is likely to me measured in increments, not in a single apocalyptic collapse.

The prospects of the elections returning a Parliament and Prime Minister which look a lot like the current one, frustrating the hopes for change, seems higher today than it did a month ago. If the campaign season and actual voting is marred by significant fraud or abuses, as many of those targeted by the de-Ba'athification process warn, we could be heading towards an Afghan or even Iranian post-electoral crisis -- so international and American efforts right now should be oriented towards standing up a robust and credible international electoral monitoring system to try to head that off.

Despite all the U.S. efforts to keep a low profile while working behind the scenes for a rational solution -- the best it could have done in the circumstances -- it is now being publicly lambasted for its interference. Vice President Biden and Ambassador Hill's efforts to secure a compromise -- seen as too little by many American critics --  have nonetheless become a lightning rod for nationalist and sectarian rhetoric. Those Americans who continue to call on the Obama administration to "do more" in Iraq should pay careful attention to Nuri al-Maliki's direct criticism of the American role, to the denunciation of David Petraeus as a "Baathist," and to the generally pugnacious and antagonistic discourse about the U.S. in the Iraqi electoral atmosphere. Staying longer and doing more are not really in the cards.  

UPDATE:  There seems to have been an official ruling that the ban on Mutlak and al-Ani will stand, and they will not be allowed to run in the election. Expect a hot weekend.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

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