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Iraq's Political Turmoil Could Lead to Civil War

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The decision by an Iraqi court to disqualify dozens of candidates -- including one winner from the Iraqiya coalition led by former premier Iyad Allawi -- for alleged ties to the Baath party could push the country closer to civil war.

There is an old adage in the Middle East that Arab rulers in power leave their office only through bloody coup d'etats or the Divine; once in power, most will ruthlessly hold on like a child to a lollipop in a candy store.

In the past seven years in Iraq, the same powerhouses of mix-n-match political exiles-cum-elite have retained control, alternating ministries between them, while Iraqis wait to see a glimpse of the new dawn they are promised again and again.

The court's decision means that it has agreed with the recommendations of the Justice and Accountability Committee (JAC), which is charged with preventing former members of the outlawed Baath party from returning to public life.

JAC had first called for the 52 candidates to be disqualified immediately after the March 7 election and strongly criticized the Iraqi electoral commission for even allowing them to run in the first place.

Such pressure may help explain the electoral commission's decision last week - it no doubt also caved in to demands from the State of Law Coalition lead by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki - to carry out a manual recount of the Baghdad province vote tally.

Since then, other politicians have stepped forward calling for recounts in different parts of Iraq.

This political entanglement comes at the height of feverish efforts between Kurds and Arabs in the multi-ethnic northern city of Mosul to calm tensions which were exacerbated after the mostly Arab Hadbaa party won provincial elections and ousted Kurdish legislators in January 2009.

In the last few days, the Kurds and Arabs announced that they were almost within reach of a settlement that would bridge the ethnic divide and end the long-running conflict in the north.

Such a fostering of good will could also serve as a confidence-building measure and quell Arab fears that the Kurds intend to formalize the de facto annexation of disputed territories to the northern semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.

On the other hand it could convince Kurds wary of Arab dominance in local politics that a power sharing mechanism for the north could work.

However, that settlement has now been thrown in doubt by the recent events in Baghdad which may overturn the election results; it is unknown whether the Kurds will continue to negotiate with Hadbaa, a member of the Iraqiya coalition, if Allawi is no longer considered the winner of the March 7 election.

Iraqi political observers have repeatedly stressed that the road to the March 7 elections, like the current post-poll political maneuvering, is the best indication of what type of Iraq emerges in the days and weeks to come.

There is a sense of foreboding.

In the days preceding the March 7 election, there were efforts to bar leading Sunni politicians - many of whom had allied with Allawi, a Shia - from the ballot. These were in tandem with attempts to also disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Iraqis from casting out-of-country votes.

More dangerously, however, were the endless efforts of the JAC to ensure that as many Sunnis as possible were prohibited from participating in the elections and thereby discouraging the Sunni community from casting their votes, much akin to their 2005 boycott.

The peril lies in the fact that JAC is headed by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, both of whom ran as candidates for the Iraqi National Alliance, a group formerly allied with Maliki's political bloc, in the March 7 elections.

Despite protests that the presence of two candidates empowered with the authority to prohibit politicians from rival parties to run in the elections constituted a clash of interests, the court nevertheless accepted their recommendations.

This is a crisis that cannot be understated. The post-election period reveals that no election result is safe from court intervention and constitutional brigandry in the new Iraq.

That is not the way democracies function; unfortunately, there is a venomous rot which runs in the political roots of modern post-Saddam Iraq.

In abiding by the de-Baathification process, at the urging of Chalabi and other once-stalwart anti-Saddam allies, Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority head in 2003, may have committed a grave blunder which is only now beginning to unfold.

Nearly four-and-a-half million Iraqis belonged to the Baath party; most of Iraq's technocrats - those that are instrumental in any serious reconstruction process - were members of the Baath party.

By classifying them as unwanted members of society, and disenfranchising them, Bremer not only chased many of them out of the country, but also insured that only non-Baathists could legitimately serve in the new Iraq.

He resisted calls by many Iraqis - including members of the Arab League - to spearhead national reconciliation to heal the political and sectarian rifts which have long simmered in the country.

South African delegations even offered to help form Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, drawing on their own post-Apartheid experiences, but these were rejected.

What this boils down to is only Iraqis who were in self-exile abroad could rule in Iraq. As many of these were sponsored and supported by Iran, it is not surprising then that many secular nationalist Iraqis view themselves as under a second-tier Iranian occupation.

Maliki and his predecessor, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, were both members of the once outlawed Daawa party, which had offices in Damascus and Tehran. Both spent numerous years in Iran at the height of the Islamic revolution there.

Ammar Al-Hakim, Al-Jaafari's ally in the Iraqi National Alliance, was a junior player to his father Abdel Aziz Al-Hakim (passed away last August) who led the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its military wing, the Badr Brigades, from the early 1980s.

Both the military and political wings were supported since 1981 with materiel and funding by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Badr Brigades were allowed to train and launch attacks against the Iraqi army from Iranian territory during the 1980-1988 war between the two oil-rich neighbors.

These political factions are now pit in a bitter political fight with Allawi, also a Shia, who chose the West (London) for his exile.

In the March 7 election, Allawi appealed to Sunni (and some Shia) voters not because he is Shia or a former Baathist himself, but because his supporters believe in his message for a non-sectarian Iraq.

They see a secular Iraq founded on nationalistic ideals as the only way to avoid a return to sectarian strife and possible civil war.

For a few days in March, it seemed that the Iraqi people had crossed that critical threshold and set a milestone for the Middle East. Millions of Iraqis braved sporadic bombings, death threats, and the overall environment of violence which had sedated them since 2003 to cast their votes and elect a new parliament and prime minister.

They were hoping to elect a new Iraq that had matured out of its sectarian militancy and in which all sects and ethnicities had reconciled their differences to usher in a new era.

Unfortunately, and with the same dizzying speed with which the Republicans declared Mission Accomplished, many pundits were once again last month far too presumptuous in heralding that Iraq was indeed the region's newest blossoming democracy.

Yes, in spirit the elections were democratic because most Iraqis want a libertarian state that is established on the principles of equality, justice, and nationalism. They seek an Iraq that could soon regain its place among Arab nations and resist interference from Damascus, Riyadh, and Tehran.

But it turns out what the Iraqi people want is immaterial and counts for little when the realpolitik recited by Iraqi politicians - but written in foreign capitals - takes over.

Iraqis who were convinced by both the Bush and Obama administrations to put their faith and confidence in the electoral process - indeed, democracy itself - are now disillusioned. One wonders if US politicians who visited Iraq numerous times - starting with former Secretary of State Condi Rice to Vice-President Joe Biden - to mediate between political factions are ready to throw in the towel.

While Allawi has threatened to reject the new results and is to call for a new election to be held, ordinary Iraqis are wondering whether the country can be held together. Some are even beginning to worry that the departure of US troops will usher in new butchery and bloodshed.

Many questions are being asked in an atmosphere where conspiracy theories are like bread and butter; is Washington in a secret agreement with Tehran to hand over control of Iraq? Is this political turmoil orchestrated to create a moral and strategic justification for US forces to remain in Iraq?

Are Iraqis who once wanted nothing but a US exit now rethinking the merits of such a move?

They are now asking themselves what has changed since Saddam was ousted. Yes, a more independent media they may have, but newspapers written by free journalists will hardly shield them from the bullets and machetes they fear may soon be coming their way.