As election nears, free expression in Iraq remains a myth

Reid Smith Contributor
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We might have known that come election time in Iraq, it’s rarely the voting that counts.

Controversy surrounding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempt to prohibit political rivals from participating in March’s parliamentary election has threatened to splinter Iraq’s fragile democracy. Although the campaign for Iraq’s legislature does not formally begin until next week, 511 would-be candidates, both Shi’a and Sunni, with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party found themselves unexpectedly stuck in political limbo.

The legal face-off pit the prime minister and a powerful Shi’a-led governance commission—one which replaced the original “De-Ba’athification” board established by the Coalition Provisional Authority—against a judicial appeals committee accused of acting under pressure from the United States.

The stakes are high. Oil contacts, the status of U.S. forces, and the political representation of the Iraqi people hang in the balance of the March 7 elections. There have been rumblings that the Accountability and Justice Commission, helmed by several prominent Shi’a politicians, was designed to eliminate rivals and distract voters from the inability of the Maliki government to provide security, basic services and reduce unemployment. The commission’s interests are further blurred by its supervisor, Ahmed Chalabi, erstwhile ally of the Bush administration, who has since been suspected of Persian-politicking with Iran. Regardless, the uproar created by the commission’s judgment to haphazardly blacklist over five hundred aspirant MPs has threatened to drag the country back into the violent sectarian strife.

Last Wednesday, the seven-judge appellate committee that overturned this decision ruled that the banned candidates may participate in the election, although their cases would be revisited, and exhaustively reviewed, after voting. All those found to have legitimate ties to Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, or those found to be in breach of Iraqi election laws, would be permanently barred from participating in parliament. Since that time, of the 511 candidates originally targeted by the Accountability and Justice Commission, many were scratched by their parties, and some have seen their bans lifted. 177 cases remained in the appeals pipeline, but it was revealed Tuesday that only 37 of these petitions were filed correctly leaving the remaining 140 candidates ineligible for participation.

Although al-Maliki initially balked at the court’s decision to reinstate the candidates, and demanded a special session of parliament to uphold the black-listings, a meeting held between the prime minister and the head of the appeals body on Saturday apparently produced a satisfactory compromise. Not surprisingly, this impromptu arrangement may have drastically undercut constitutional law, as the standard appeals process was altered for appearance sake, shortly thereafter.

Sectarian tensions have escalated in the weeks leading up to the election, despite the consolidation of legitimate political parties and coalitions. Prime Minister al-Maliki has blamed former Ba’athists of working with the al-Qaida in Iraq terror organization, which has been accused of detonating a series of suicide, and car-bomb attacks over the past few weeks. Most recently, a twin-bombing in Karbala killed more than 40 Shi’a pilgrims who had traveled to the shrine city to mark the 40th day after the historic martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein.

The last national parliamentary elections held in Iraq in 2005 were defined by ethnic and religious identities. Last January’s provincial elections suggested that the concept of democracy had matured into a referendum on nationalism, security and the local delivery of basic government services such as garbage collection, housing shortages, unclean water, and the lack of electricity. Regrettably, current electoral disarray might imply that backroom politics at its worst will define March’s ballot vote. Clearly the exclusion of prominent Sunni politicians could undermine the integrity of the vote, but the extra-legal maneuvering to secure their place on the ballot is equally alarming.

Further muddying the political waters is the status of development contracts for several massive Iraqi oil fields that were auctioned off to foreign companies in July and December of 2009. However, as evidenced by this latest electoral headache, Iraqi politics and an uncertain legal environment create major complications and serious doubts about the soundness of oil contracts.

Legal opinion in Iraq regarding the legality of these contracts is essentially split between allies and opponents of al-Maliki. The prime minister’s State of Law coalition, which surged in last January’s provincial elections and remains a principal contender in the March ballot, will ensure the auctioned parcels if it maintains control of parliament. However, hydrocarbon laws governing Iraq’s oil wealth, the third largest in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Iran, have not been passed yet, and an influx of blacklisted candidates might have soured the existing deals.

The United States is also up to its neck in this political mess. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Iraq last month to soothe tensions between various parties underscored U.S. concerns regarding mounting tensions. Currently, there are around 115,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, although the Status of Forces Agreement signed between Iraq and the United States last year authorizes the U.S. to drawdown to all but 50,000 troops by the end of August. Those remaining forces would leave the Iraq by the end of 2011. However, according to Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, departure dates are subject to the situation on the ground.

This places the U.S. exit strategy in jeopardy. If an obvious and deliberate sectarian divide already has compromised the vote, the election would be judged abortive. Any plans to extend the U.S. mission in Iraq are similarly unappetizing to all parties, as the mere presence of Vice President Biden excited agitation from many Iraqis, including the Maliki administration, who perceive the heavy hand of U.S. interference in their parliamentary election.

Fears that shifts in power could cause renewed sectarian and ethnic violence are part of the political theater in Iraq. However, the utter lack of transparency and obvious extra-legality preceding the March elections has already resulted in anger and bloodshed. Despite the purple thumbs and flying shoes, the vague definition of democracy in a nation dominated by external influence and political personality leaves democratic free expression in Iraq shrouded in myth.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. His graduate work at American University’s School of International Service was focused on the politics of Shi’a majority in Iraq.