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.

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.