Sunday, February 21, 2010

But what about the elections?

The Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for March 7 were originally envisioned as a a clear step on the high road to true democracy in Iraq. Instead they have become the symbol of just how fragile both the political process and the by-comparison-with-previous-years stability are in a nation still defined by its internal divisions.

Even the date itself expresses that: By Iraq's constitution, the elections were supposed to be held no later than January 31. But as political wrangling and arguing over the arrangements chewed up month after month on the calendar, that date became impossible to meet - and so the Constitution was ignored. As an indication of just much this has been "make it up as you go along," the elections are just eight days before the end of this parliament's term, so some kind of ad hoc caretaker government will have to be cobbled together until a new governing coalition can be assembled.

The campaign itself - the official start of which was delayed by five days because of legal issues about candidates' eligibility - has been marked by violence.
At least two candidates have been killed. Bombings have struck at least four party headquarters in Baghdad, as well as a candidate’s home in Ramadi. In Maysan, in southern Iraq, gunmen opened fire on a candidate hanging posters for Ahrar, a party led by a cleric who favors a secular democracy, killing one of the candidate’s aides....
But overshadowing even the violence has been the issue of Baathism - or, more properly, the single-minded focus of the campaign of the ruling Shiite coalition on the supposed (and basically mythical) threat of its return. Iraqi journalists with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) expressed how
[a] quick study of the election posters recently plastered up along a street in downtown Baghdad gives an insight into the political campaign agenda ahead of a nationwide ballot on March 7.

In the space of a city block, campaign banners read, "There is no place for Baathists", "Revenge to the Baathists who mistreated you", and "No return of the Baathist criminals". ...

Only one poster along the road promises something different. "We will work to solve the unemployment problem", proclaims a lonely placard nearly lost on a wall plastered with strident rhetoric.

The prevalence of anti-Baathist sloganeering is not confined to the streets. Television, radio and print media have run daily coverage of the campaigns against the previous regime’s party, and prominent politicians have engaged in one-upmanship over who has the hardest line against the party....
The campaign could be seen as a particularly strident combination of "law and order" (or lawn ordure, if you prefer) and "the terrorists are coming!" campaigns in the US and one that at least some Iraqis see as merely an attempt to distract from the government's failure to deliver on its promises - but it's one which has succeeded in its goal of frightening and so mobilizing pro-government Shiite voters.

There are other effects which are more immediate and more than merely rhetorical: The anti-Baathist campaign was the direct source and justification for the decision by the Accountability and Justice Commission to ban over 500 candidates from the parliamentary elections, most of them on the grounds of a claim they had some connection to Saddam Hussein's old, now illegal, Baath Party.

Some 171 appealed their exclusion. On February 3, an appeals court overturned the decision of the Commission, saying there was not enough time to determine the facts before the election. However, just two days later, under enormous political pressure from both the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and, it appears, the US, it began hearing appeals. Only 26 candidates ultimately prevailed, leaving 145 out. Among the excluded, notably, were Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani, two leading candidates of the Iraqiya list, a coalition of Sunni parties. Both Mutlaq and Ani are secular Sunnis and both are current members of Parliament.

So strident is the anti-Baathist campaign that when US officials expressed concern about the election situation, fearing that if it appeared illegitimate to Sunnis it could reawaken large-scale sectarian violence, the main Shiite bloc, the National Iraqi Alliance,
accused the United States of interfering in Iraqi domestic politics and of plotting to bring the Baath Party back into prominence as the "neo-Baath,"
reports Juan Cole.

The court's decision essentially endorsing the Commission's findings lead to a boycott of the election by Mutlaq's Iraqi National Dialogue Front. That development, coupled with the informal agreement between the two main (and supposedly competing) Shiite blocs that they will unite in forming a new government after the election, has lead to the understandable - and justifiable - suspicion among Sunnis that the Commission had acted as it did in order to blunt the potential influence of the Iraqiya list and maintain Shiite dominance in the government.

Adding to the suspicion is the fact that the head of the Accountability and Justice Commission is Iraq's very own Comeback Kid: Ahmed Chalabi.

Sunnis and many secularists in the Shiite community are so eager to overturn the dominance of the Shiite religious parties that have controlled Iraq's government for five years that it is unclear whether Mutlak's boycott call will have weight with many people.
Juan Cole, for his part, suggests that a boycott would not have the same "disastrous" effects as the boycott of national elections in January of 2005 did.
I don't think that catastrophe can now be repeated[, he said]. ... The current elections instead have Iraqi provinces as the electoral unit. Thus, the largely Sunni provinces of al-Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninevah will return a lot of Sunni members of parliament even with a boycott (the resulting members of parliament just would not represent that many people).
I'm not as sanguine about this as Professor Cole because the issue isn't really the number of Sunni members of Parliament but the public sense - especially among Sunnis - of the legitimacy of the elections, which in this case could be affected more by turnout than by results. At the same time, the decision of the Iraqiya coalition to proceed with campaigning likely indicates the idea of a boycott is not catching on.

Even so, as recently as last fall, a time when there was still hope that the elections could be held in January, there were some new political alliances claiming to favor nationalist agendas, raising the hope that, in the words of an IWPR report from the time, "the country may be inching away from sectarian politics."

That hope has been shown to be false, as the New York Times reported from Nineveh earlier this month.
What is striking is how faithfully Iraqis expect to vote by identity, despite campaign appeals to national unity.

Issues - basic services, economic development, security - all seem to stem from identity as much as politics. “First ethnicity, second political party,” was how the leading Kurdish official here, Khasro Goran, put it.

The new Parliament will include 31 members from Nineveh, and Mr. Goran expects the main national Kurdish coalition to win 10 seats - based not on polls, but on the estimated percentage of Kurds in the province.
And as the ruling forces in the Iraqi government continue to fan the flames of fear in their campaign to maintain their dominance, those ethnic divisions intensify and the shadow of resurgent violence spreads. This from the Washington Post this past Wednesday.
The Mashhadani family, which is Sunni, has lived in Hurriyah[, a mostly Shiite neighborhood in northwest Baghdad,] for 40 years, save two years when family members were forced to flee. ...

On Jan. 23, Omar Mashhadani sat on a flimsy mattress in his living room, waiting to watch a soccer game on television. There was a knock at the door.

When Omar answered, he was shot at least three times.

His brother, Jassim, and his mother, Nadima Taha Yasseen, rushed toward the front door. Omar limped into his brother's arms, the Iraqi flag on his green jersey soaked in blood.

No one came to the family's aid. No one helped load Omar into the minibus that took him to the hospital. No men came to pay condolences after he died last month; they were too afraid to openly mourn his death.
His name - Omar - marked him as Sunni. Marked him, apparently, for murder.
It was only one killing[, the Post said,] but it unleashed the demons of a bitter and perhaps unfinished past. ...

The death and the aftermath were reminiscent of the prelude to the sectarian war, which began in late 2005 with a smattering of killings and threats and culminated with 100 bodies a day being dumped in the streets of the capital. With the imminent departure of American forces and fierce competition for power ahead of general elections on March 7, many here say sectarian strife is reigniting.

A senior U.S. military official who has spent years in Iraq said he fears that as the drawdown begins, American forces are leaving behind many of the same conditions that preceded the sectarian war.

"All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a stark assessment.
As the Post observes, "the violence goes both ways": Note that several of the attacks I mentioned on Friday were against Shiite pilgrims on their way to Karbala. But the execution-style killing of Omar Mashhadani has a special resonance. Even more than the bombings of pilgrims, it has the rank smell of what David Neiwert adroitly (if not altogether originally) labels "eliminationism." It says in a special way, a very personal way, that you are "other." That "you are not welcome here." That even though you have lived here for decades, you do not belong. You are "not us."
[T]hrough the narrow streets, in the low-slung homes that were cleansed of Sunnis before a few trickled back, the fear is palpable. Sectarian graffiti sprayed on walls in 2006 and 2007 have been scrubbed or scribbled out. But now, new tags are appearing. At one Sunni mosque, security forces quickly removed a spray-painted message.

"Death to Baathists and Wahhabis," it said, referring to Saddam Hussein loyalists and followers of a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. Days later, another was sprayed across the wall. The message was clear: "Death to Sunnis."
The elections will happen on schedule. The votes will be counted, the winners declared, and after a fair amount of complaining, wrangling, maneuvering, and accusing, a new government will emerge. Iraq will go on. But none of it will remove the meaning of that graffiti or head off more of the same, the graffiti of gunfire, tit for tat, retaliation to counter-retaliation to counter-counter retaliation. Indeed, by its embrace of fear of the dark threat of the "other" as a campaign tactic, Maliki and his supporters have pushed the country onto a dangerous path.

Let's be as generous as we can and suppose that it was just a campaign tactic, one solely intended to win votes rather than to produce tangible actions. If that's true, if they want to contain the fear and forego the force, they will need to say so, clearly and explicitly. And soon.

If they don't, we will know their true intent.

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