|Iranian elephant in the Iraqi
By Sreeram Chaulia
The kerfuffle triggered in Iraq by a government panel's
recent disqualification of over 500 candidates from the
parliamentary elections in March has engendered a new crisis
that threatens to unravel delicate national reconciliation
and stabilization goals.
Despite the immediate intervention of United States Vice
President Joseph Biden with a peacemaking solution that
would allow all the candidates under the scanner to contest
the elections and narrow the investigation to victorious
ones after the results, the bad blood from the 2005
elections lends a foul air to the whole fracas.
The controversial decision by the Accountability and Justice
Commission (AJC) has sent shivers down the spines of Iraq's
Sunni minority community, which fears that its leaders have
been deliberately blacklisted to deepen a majoritarian
Shi'ite-dominated polity. Among the prominent Sunni
politicians who will be barred by the commission's ruling
are Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading light of the secular Iraqiya
bloc that is the main competitor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's
Shi'ite State of Law coalition.
The AJC was created by act of parliament in January 2008
to prevent former members of dethroned dictator Saddam
Hussein's predominantly Sunni Ba'ath Party from holding
positions of power and influence in the new order. It took
over the baton from a Higher National De-Ba'athification
Commission (HNDBC), which was initially tasked by the Iraqi
Governing Council in 2003 to weed out sympathizers and
active agents who had propped up Saddam's regime of terror.
The AJC was supposed to be a reformed institution compared
with its predecessor by virtue of its orders being subject
to an appeals process, wherein any individual removed from
public office or banned from contesting for it could
approach an external independent body of judges for
The HNDBC had become notorious for carrying out witch-hunts
against suspected Ba'ath Party members as well as those who
had bare minimal connections with Saddam's system. Led by
the hawkish former Shi'ite exiled politician and ex-American
ally in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi, the HNDBC had exacerbated
sectarian divides and state collapse by allegedly harassing
Sunnis of all walks of life who had practically no truck
with Saddam's dictatorship.
Chalabi's dubious distinction as a pathfinder for the US
invasion of Iraq via the pretext of Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction, and his subsequent overzealous purging from the
Iraqi public services of Ba'athists who could have been
useful to prevent the breakdown into anarchy, led the
American occupation forces to gradually distance themselves
from this divisive figure.
However, despite all the upheavals and twists in Iraq's
political formations and alliances over the years since
2003, Chalabi survived and held onto the de-Ba'athification
positions in government. He and members of his Iraqi
National Congress (INC) held the reins of the HNDBC and
managed to place their top guns even in the rationalized AJC,
which was meant to be less vindictive and more true to its
created purpose of ushering in transitional justice in Iraq.
The latest disqualification drama has focused light on the
mysterious figure of Ali Faisal al-Lami, Chalabi's deputy on
the AJC and a friend-turned-foe of the Americans in Iraq.
The recriminations that flew back and forth after Iraq's
election commission released the list of 511 candidates for
alleged links to the Ba'ath Party have centered on Lami's
perceived extremist Shi'ite ties and biased background.
Once an honored guest at the George W Bush White House in
Washington, along with his boss, Chalabi, Lami was arrested
by American forces in August 2008 on grounds that he was
involved with Shi'ite terrorist groups and Iran's
intelligence apparatus. Held and tortured for close to one
year in different jails, including what he claims was a
secret US-run prison facility, Lami was so high-profile a
captive that he recounts being directly advised to
"cooperate" by General David Petraeus, the top commander of
American forces in Iraq at that time.
Lami makes no secret of his role as a "liaison" between the
followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi
Army (now inactive) and Chalabi's INC. He also admits to
having forged a "close friendship" with the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq
(League of the Righteous) militia, which is a splinter
faction of the Mahdi Army and a militant movement that
continues Muqtada's resistance agenda of driving Western
occupiers out of Iraq.
Asa'ib garnered global headlines last month when it released
kidnapped British journalist Peter Moore, two-and-half years
after he was abducted. Petraeus is on record as saying that
he is "absolutely certain" that Moore was held by Asa'ib in
Iran. Though this is denied by Washington, London and the
Iraqi authorities, the price of Moore's life was probably
the freeing of Qais al-Khazali by the Maliki government this
month. This young Shi'ite clone of Muqtada has been
projected in the media as a favorite of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps and hardline clerical
establishment and as an anti-Western resistance hero with a
great political future in Iraq.
What is most intriguing is that the same Lami who had a
leading hand in the disqualifications of leading Sunni
politicians testified to having met Qais at Camp Cropper,
the high-value detention center of the Americans in Baghdad.
Qais and Lami "hugged and exchanged traditional kisses on
each cheek" and confided to each other that both men were in
the same boat of "resistance against the occupation".
All the circumstantial evidence thus points to Iranian
blessings for the AJC's bombshell on Iraq's Sunni
politicians, further complicating the US's goal of phased
withdrawal following the March elections. If Iraq's
sectarian divide settles down into an ominous and lengthy
shadow over the post-election state's make-up, the Barack
Obama administration's timetable of winding up combat
operations and exiting the scene by August 2010 might leave
behind a status quo that strategically benefits Iran the
Defenders of the AJC's de-Ba'athification move against key
Sunni politicians contend that it was a non-sectarian
measure that affects both Sunni and Shiite candidates.
According to Reuters, more Shi'ites than Sunnis have been
axed in the AJC's list for being associated with the Ba'ath
Party. Analysts have also pointed to the fact that the worst
sufferers of the AJC's ban are not Sunnis but secular
parties and coalitions, such as Iraqiya and current Interior
Minister Jawad al-Bolani's Iraq Unity coalition.
These nuances overlook the plain fact that in a Shi'ite-majority
country like Iraq, "secular parties" are the only meaningful
vehicles for Sunni tribal leaders and bigwigs to register
their influence at the national level. If the AJC's
politicized and seemingly Iran-prodded ruling ends up, as
expected, benefiting the electoral chances of Maliki's State
of Law coalition and the other major Shi'ite conglomerate,
the Iraqi National Alliance led by the Tehran-backed Islamic
Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the sense that Sunnis have
again been short-changed after they boycotted the 2005
elections will solidify.
It is no coincidence that, besides Lami and Chalabi, two of
the AJC's major panelists are candidates in the elections
representing the ISCI's alliance. For all the efforts at
streamlining transitional justice in Iraq into a
nation-building rather than a nation-splitting exercise, the
stable of the AJC was packed with Iran-preferred horses. One
of the affected secular politicians correctly termed the
AJC's partisan list "a general massacre of democracy". He
could have added that it was Iran's gift.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat,
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