Thursday, January 21, 2010

Return Of Sectarian Politics To Iraq

Campaigning for the March 2010 parliamentary elections is underway in Iraq and the leading issue is not the economy, services, or improving security, but Baathists. This marks the return of sectarian politics that had been in the decline until now.

The January 2009 provincial elections represented a large step forward for Iraqi politics. Nationalist and secular parties did much better than those that tried to run on identity and sect. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) for example, lost control of Baghdad and southern Iraq as a result of stressing religion. Afterward, the biggest winner, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law List also attempted to form cross-sectarian ruling coalitions in many provinces. Sunnis also turned out in high numbers after boycotting the 2005 elections. This was seen as an important turn for Iraq as many of the exile groups that came to power on the coattails of the Americans were beginning to show signs of being superseded by new indigenous ones that stressed issues over ethnosectarianism.

It was hoped that the 2010 elections would be more of the same, but instead Baathists have become the major issue. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was trying to run on improved security, a strong central government, and Iraqi nationalism, actually played a large role in changing the discourse running up to the vote. After the massive bombings of government offices that began in August 2009, the Prime Minister turned to blaming Baathists in Syria for the attacks. The government than released a series of taped confessions of alleged bombers who pointed the finger at former regime elements living across the border in Damascus. He followed that up by giving speeches in which he warned about the growing Baathist threat to the government, such as an address in Karbala in September 2009. Maliki and the Foreign Minister even demanded that the United Nations look into Syrian Baathists, and their role in terrorist attacks within the country. By November, the Prime Minister talked about Baathists using the elections to return to power, which he promised would never happen under his watch. After the December Baghdad bombings, Maliki claimed there was a Baathist plot hatched in Syria to try to overthrow the government. The Iraqi press stirred the pot by making reports about Baathists secretly organizing to take part in the 2010 balloting, and interviewing leading Sunnis such as parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq and Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha of Anbar who said that Baathists could get 1-6 million votes. Since improved security was one of Maliki’s main campaign messages, he needed to defer attention away from himself for the lapses that allowed for the bombings. He chose to blame a far away and ethereal threat, Baathists in Syria, which still plays with many Shiites in the country. It also made the attacks a foreign problem, rather than an internal one.

By January 2010 the Baathist campaign had spread from the national to the local level with provincial officials making similar statements to Maliki. On January 13 the deputy provincial council head in Karbala said that Baathists were trying to destabilize the country, and that security officials in the province were on alert against attacks by former regime members. That same day a lawmaker said that Baathists in neighboring countries and hidden ones within parliament itself were plotting to disrupt the 2010 elections. On January 14, the head of the legal committee in Qadisiyah, and a member of the National Alliance, the State of Law’s main rival, said that his coalition was committed to preventing the return of Baathists to power. Later that day a bomb went off in Najaf, leading the provincial council, which is controlled by the State of Law, to blame Baathists. On January 16, there was a demonstration in Diwaniyah, Qadisiyah calling for all Baathists to be expelled from the government, which brought the governor and provincial council members who are from the State of Law to pledge that they were working against Saddam’s followers. Two days later the Najaf provincial council issued a warning that Baathists had 24 hours to leave the governorate.

Of course, the most famous act of sectarian politics this year occurred in early January when the Accountability and Justice Commission announced that they were banning 511 candidates and parties from running in 2010 due to their alleged ties to Baathists. Ahmad Chalabi and Ali al-Lami of the Iraqi National Congress head the commission, and both are running as part of the National Alliance this year. While more Shiites were banned than Sunnis, the real target of their action were the new nationalist and secular parties that pose the greatest threat to the power of sectarian parties that make up the leadership of the National Alliance.

All of these actions together have made the 2010 elections not about any real issues that will improve the lives of Iraqis, but rather a chimera, the return of Baathists. Even before the first Baghdad bombing in August 2009 the various Shiite parties were banding around charges about Baathists, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made it a pressing national issue when he blamed all of the massive bombings in the capital on Syrian Baathists, aired confessions on TV, withdrew the Iraqi ambassador from Syria, and demanded that the United Nations investigate. State of Law members at the local level throughout southern Iraq than took up the campaign. Not to be undone, Maliki’s main rival, the National Alliance focused the entire 2010 campaign upon whether alleged Baathists should be able to participate by banning 511 candidates and several political parties in January. Maliki was motivated by the fact that the bombings in Baghdad undermined his claim to have restored security to the country, one of his main selling points. The National Alliance was driven by the fact that they couldn’t sell their coalition on anything else, since the various members don’t agree on policy, and only have their Shiite identity, support from Iran, and opposition to Maliki to unite them; not points that would gain them many votes outside of their current followers. 2010 has thus become a repeat of the 2005 elections when sectarianism was the major issue. The victims will be the Iraqi people, who are likely to come out in lower numbers than the 2009 vote if this continues, since all of this rhetoric about Baathists doesn’t address any of the issues they feel are most pressing such as jobs or financial security, or even improving security to prevent more large bombings from happening again. This is just the latest example of the soap opera that is Iraqi politics. 

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Iraqi province gives Saddam loyalists 24 hours to leave,” 1/18/10

AK News, “Karbala Council: Baathists destabilize the situations in Iraq,” 1/13/10
- “Najaf Council: Baath Party responsible for Thursday bombings,” 1/15/10
- “National coalition fighting to prevent return of Baathists,” 1/14/10

Alsumaria, “Iraq MP: Baathists plan to shake elections,” 1/13/10
- “Zebari accuses Syria of implication in Iraq attacks,” 10/30/09

Aswat al-Iraq, “Baathist-takfirist alliance to destroy political process – PM,” 9/5/09
- “Demonstrators in Diwaniya call for closing Mutlak’s office,” 1/16/10
- “PM warns of Baathists’ infiltration through election,” 11/15/09

Chulov, Martin, “Baghdad car bombs blamed on Syria and Islamists by Iraqi government,” Guardian, 12/9/09

Roads To Iraq, “Ba’ath Party and the election – 2,” 11/27/09

Sands, Phil, “A safe haven in Damascus,” The National, 8/29/09

Sly, Liz, “Iraqi election crisis poses a test for U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, 1/20/10

Visser, Reidar, “The 511 De-Baathification Cases: Sectarianism or Despotism?” Historiae, 1/20/10

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