Obama’s First Real Test in Iraq
Last week, an Iraqi governmental commission banned more than a dozen political parties and leading political figures from the upcoming March elections. Among those banned was one of Iraq's most significant players, Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular nationalist leader and a head of one of the most important parliamentary blocs.
When Paul Bremer ruled Iraq, he created the infamous "de-baathefication" commission with the help of Ahmad Al-Chalabi. A couple of years ago, that commission was disbanded, and it was supposed to be replaced by another new body called the "Accountability and Justice Commission". But the Iraqi government never submitted nominations to the parliament for confirmation to form the new commission. So what ended up happening is that the old de-baathiefication commission just changed its title and claimed it can continue its work under the new name. But the parliament rejected this argument and never recognized the same old appointees to be confirmed for the new committee. So when the unrecognized "Accountability and Justice Commission" announced that Al-Mutlaq was banned from the upcoming elections because of his support to Baathist ideologies, there was an Iraqi outrage not only because of the lack of legitimacy of the commission, but also because Dr. Al-Mutlaq has been a prominent member of the Iraqi political system since 2003. He's not only a head of one of the most important parliamentary blocs, but he also sits on the Iraqi Political Council for National Security.
For the last few week, Dr. Al-Mutlaq and others in coalition have been under continues attacks by the current Iraqi ruling parties, so this latest attempt to ban Dr. Al-Mutlaq is seen as another political maneuver to take down that nationalist coalition.
If the Iraqi Supreme Court confirms the commission's recommendations
and bans Dr. Al-Mutlaq, his partners in the coalition have already announced
they will boycott the upcoming elections. This means that Dr. Allawi,
Dr. Al-Hashemi, Mr. AL-Nujaifi, Dr. Al-Ani and others in the coalition
will not run in the upcoming elections, leaving the current ruling parties to
compete against each other without any real participation from opposition
parties and leaders. This will be a disaster that might destroy what
little legitimacy the Iraqi political system has left, and it will definitely
decrease the Iraqi public's participation in the upcoming elections.
The March elections have a lot of threats: Elections might be further delayed by the ruling parties fearing to lose; Elections might be stolen by the ruling parties with the lack of international observers; and elections might be seen as illegitimate if opposition parties were excluded and politically persecuted.
The Obama Administration can play a constructive role by pressure the Iraqi government (both the Cabinet and Presidential council) to create an inclusive environment that allows more Iraqis to participate in the political process rather than persecute and alienate those who are willing to work with the system. In addition, the Obama Administration can encourage US NGOs to send international monitors to the March elections, and allocate emergency funds to cover their expenses to avoid the possibility of an Iran-style post-election unrest.
And what is even more dangerous is that the Obama administration and Pentagon have been linking the US withdrawal to conditions on the ground, announcing that successful elections in Iraq would facilitate the US withdrawal. Such announcements by the President and Pentagon are extremely dangerous, because they send an invitation to anti-withdrawal groups in Iraq and the region to destabilize Iraq further if they want the US to stay longer.
There are two upcoming deadlines for US troops' withdrawals: First, Combat Forces Withdrawal that should take place between April and August of this year bringing the total number of US troops in Iraq down from 128,000 to 50,000, and the total number of US contractors from 150,000 to 75,000. Secondly, the All Troops Withdrawal by the end of the SOFA agreement, when ALL troops and contractors must leave Iraq and all US bases must be closed or handed over to the Iraqi side. The current deadline for the SOFA is Dec. 31st 2011, but that might shift a bit earlier in case Iraqis vote "NO" on a public referendum over the agreement triggering the one year cancellation clause.
If the Obama Administration falls in the slippery slope of moving towards a "conditions-based withdrawal" rather than the current time-based one, that will take us to the first square.