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. 

Washington appears to favor solving the crisis by postponing the de-Baathification process until after the elections, which could cool tempers for a moment and allow for a reasonably peaceful electoral atmosphere. In an ideal scenario, the controversy would fade and elections would produce a new assembly that would take a more measured approach to the de-Baathification question. Another option would be for the United States to stand back and hope that the Iraqi appeals system reinstates at least some of the barred candidates, thereby reducing the degree of political marginalization. 

But such a solution would essentially treat the symptoms of political failure in Iraq and not the disease. After all, the most shocking aspect of the whole affair is not the decision by the de-Baathification director, Ali Faisal al-Lami -- a friend of Ahmed Chalabi and a close ally of Iran -- to exclude more than 500 of his political opponents (he is a candidate in the elections running on the most sectarian Shiite list). Rather, what it most troubling is that the rest of the Iraqi political system has failed to offer any meaningful resistance to Lami. A large number of legal experts in and outside of Iraq agree that the procedure used to ban the candidates was arbitrary, based on dubious interpretations as well as outright breaches of Iraqi legislation. Still, the ruling to bar the candidates has been approved by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission and supported by a majority in the Iraqi parliament; even the Federal Supreme Court has refused to intervene. All of these bodies were considered by Washington to have reached political maturity, making their acquiescence to the ban all the more striking. 

This suggests that the problem of Iraq's sectarianism is not going away by itself. The Iraqi officials who are prepared to let a person such as Lami have his way now will also do so in the future. By the same token, even if the Obama administration were to succeed in deferring the de-Baathification issue, it would simply be kicking the ball farther down the road. The "independent" commission that is in charge of counting votes in the election was appointed on a partisan basis by exactly the same parties that appointed the de-Baathification board -- meaning that even if the disqualified candidates were allowed to run, they would be unlikely to reach office. 

Iran hopes for an Iraq in which politics is defined by ethnicity and religious sect, since Iraq's demography guarantees that a Shiite-led government would be friendly to Iran, with or without an alliance with the Kurds. Accordingly, any U.S. proposal that merely postpones the question of de-Baathification or passively allows the appeals process to run its course plays directly into Iranian hands: Iraq's political climate will not improve if officials are under the impression that the international community will put up no resistance to actions such as Lami's, as long as they come at times more convenient to the U.S. agenda.

Even more important, the United States must not see the current crisis as a narrow problem of Sunni participation. Doing so would buttress the harmful sectarian logic that underpins Iraq's political order and would thereby strengthen Iran's hand. Simply awarding political representation along evenly divided sectarian lines is not enough to address fundamental weaknesses. The futility of such a solution was demonstrated earlier this month by the Iraqi parliament, which appointed a subcommittee to oversee the work of Lami and his committee. This subcommittee had three members: a Shiite, a Sunni, and a Kurd (the Sunni member, Rashid al-Azzawi, eventually withdrew in protest) -- and it easily signed off on Lami's work. 

The point is that in Iraq there will always be Sunnis prepared to assent to the resolutions of the de-Baathification committee (Ayad al-Samarraie, the parliamentary speaker, is one such person). Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni leader, never had a problem finding Shiites to take part in his government. Solutions, therefore, lie outside of easy sectarian fixes. 

To keep the debacle over de-Baathification from fatally rupturing Iraq's pluralistic political structure, the Obama administration should make a symbolic gesture to show that the international community has not forgotten all the Iraqis who -- regardless of their individual affiliation -- differ with the mullahs in Iran and their Iraqi proxies. Their participation in upcoming elections, in fact, is vital to Iraq's future, most especially for the prospect of gradual reform through constitutional revision by popular referendum.

What the United States must provide, then, is not an overhaul of Iraq's political system but a sign of hope and attention for all those who have been intimidated by Lami and his commission. But this message must not reproduce the kind of divisive logic favored by Iran but transcend it -- in other words, the Obama administration must create a break from Iraq's post-2003 system of government. No amount of talking to "community leaders," vice presidents, and regional presidents that claim to represent Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds can rectify this deep problem. Similarly, there is little value in an expanded role for the existing UN mission in Iraq, because many Iraqis see this institution as being too closely aligned with the elections commission, which is organized along sectarian lines. 

One option, however, still remains: a UN special rapporteur, an expert sent by the UN to investigate human rights violations and draft potential solutions. This ad hoc, flexible, and minimalist instrument is dynamic enough to work practically in a fast-moving crisis, while also possessing the gravitas and imprimatur to offer a counterweight to Lami and his sultanic ways. Above all, a special rapporteur would signify a credible source of appeal for complaints about the electoral process, thereby allowing those intimidated by Lami and his commission to take the leap of faith in participating in the March 7 election. If the Obama administration really wants to solve this crisis, it must redirect its attention from Baghdad to Geneva, where the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is based -- and where the international community could recruit a special rapporteur on Iraq's parliamentary election.

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  • REIDAR VISSER is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the Editor of the Iraq-focused Web site Historiae.org.
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