Until recently, the United States viewed Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections on March 7 as a reflection of the country's stability and self-sufficiency -- the main ingredient needed if Washington is going to successfully end its engagement there. But the legitimacy of the elections was jeopardized earlier this month, when the country's de-Baathification board barred 511 candidates from running, citing their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The resulting political crisis has revealed the limits of Iraq's political maturation process, with its failure to move past an atmosphere of sectarianism and a political wing close to Iran poised to cement its power.
Since many of those targeted by the ruling are either Sunni or secularist, some analysts have suggested that the ban was motivated by the desire of Shiite Islamists to exclude their rivals from the political process and to consolidate their own control. The true motive, however, is subtler and more dangerous: the board aimed to revive the "Baathist question" in order to terrorize voters with the specter of a Baathist return and intimidate political enemies through an arbitrary process of exclusion.
This will perpetuate a sectarian political climate, since de-Baathification has tended to follow sectarian lines, as was already seen in the purge of thousands of officials from the Iraqi bureaucracy. Sunnis are typically targeted, whereas Shiite and Kurdish ex-Baathists are silently "un-Baathified" and thus co-opted. Although such a policy is not systematic enough to qualify as outright discrimination, simply keeping the Baathism issue on the agenda for a prolonged period will signal a remarkable resurgence of those who won the previous parliamentary elections in 2005 but lost badly in the local elections last year: the Shiite Islamists with the closest ties to Iran.
Simply put, using the anti-Baathist card to revive sectarian conflict is essentially a comeback strategy played by the Iran-affiliated Shiite Islamists. Last year, parties such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq used the Baathism issue to criticize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his cooperation with nationalists and secularists, forcing him to backtrack on his efforts to build alliances with these groups after local elections earlier in the year.