Monday, February 15, 2010

Iraq agony goes on and on

People in the United States want to forget about Iraq. We broke it in 2003; we blundered about in the sectarian civil war we unleashed in 2005-6; we paid some of the combatants to cool it temporarily in 2007; and we hope to escape altogether beginning this summer, after one more round of elections scheduled for March 7.

Supporters of Iraqiya, a secular coalition, rallied Saturday in Baghdad. Prominent candidates from the coalition have been barred from an election. Michael Kamber photo; New York Times.

Things aren't looking so good on the ground -- but we're not looking. We're not interested in more Iraqis getting killed.

When I visited Jordan in 2006, one of the most knowledgeable observers of nearby Iraq that we met with was Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. In the article I summarize here, he's trying to get oblivious Americans to notice how dire the Iraqi situation has become yet again.

According to Hiltermann, many current problems go back to one of the leavings from George W. Bush's viceroy Paul Bremer who, in 2003, gifted the Iraqis with a commission empowered to perform "De-Baathification" -- to exclude from public life anyone who had been part of Saddam Hussein's ruling party. Trouble was, as in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, anyone who wanted a professional life under Saddam had been a nominal party member. De-Baathification made criminals of people who had committed no active crimes as well as people who had committed atrocities. And many of them were Sunni Muslims, in a moment when the long suppressed Shiite majority was feeling its new power. De-Baathification was a major factor leading to the bloody Iraqi civil war.

The U.S. "surge" tamped down the Iraqi civil war after 2006, but somehow the De-Baathification commission survived. That story is quite surreal as Hiltermann tells it:

...the de-Baathification genie has escaped and gone on a rampage.

The chairman of the 2003 De-Baathification Commission was Ahmad al Chalabi, the mercurial darling of the neoconservatives and distributor of false intelligence. The parliament passed a new de-Baathification law in 2008, but failed to appoint the members of a new commission; Chalabi retained his post by default, as did the director of the commission’s implementation department, Ali Faisal al Lami, Chalabi’s trusted aide.

Al Lami, who was arrested by US forces in 2008 and accused of involvement with violent Iranian-backed groups, came out of prison in August 2009. He and Chalabi have joined a new Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. But both men retain their positions in the De-Baathification Commission, despite the glaring conflict of interest.

Is a state of law, candidates for parliament would have recused themselves from their tasks on behalf of an institution charged with screening candidates for parliament, but in today’s Iraq there is no enforcement of such salutary rules. Instead, personal vendettas and political score-settling are accepted practices along with rampant corruption and nepotism.

So these guys knocked 511 potential candidates out of the running for the upcoming March 7 parliamentary elections by charging them with Baathism. Some have since been reinstated, but Iraqis cannot help but wonder if sectarian violence is about to break out again, bigtime. The whole business looks to Sunnis like just another ruse by Iranian-backed Shiites to keep them out of government.

Juan Cole brought this story up to date yesterday. Southern Iraqi Shiites like the election disqualifications while Sunni politicians threaten to suspend participation in the election. Party offices are being bombed. And the Obama administration sent Joe Biden scurrying over for a brief visit to try to get the situation defused. Presumably there will be elections -- and the underlying pain and dispossession will continue to break out when it can.

This is the unresolved mess we will leave behind. I do think any U.S. administration will continue the "paper over and exit" strategy begun under Bush and continued under Obama. And I support that: nothing positive is being accomplished by having U.S. forces stomp around in that unfortunate country.

But as Iraq blows up, again and again, we do perhaps owe it to the families of Iraqis and Americans who have suffered from this little exercise in imperial hubris to remain aware of what we have wrought.

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