Inside and outside Iraq, there are many who hope the March 7 parliamentary elections will be a major, unifying event for the country.
But those hopes have been clouded by the continuing crisis over the banning of hundreds of mostly Sunni or secular candidates for alleged ties to the former ruling Ba'athist Party.
The de-Ba'athification crisis has reignited Sunni charges that their community is being pushed from the political stage by the Shi'ite dominated government. And it has raised questions of whether the Sunni might boycott this national election as they did the last parliamentary election in 2005.
That uncertainty has been created, in large part, thanks to the efforts of one man. He is Ahmad Chalabi, the chairman of the government's Justice and Accountability Commission that banned the candidates.
Chalabi, who once championed the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, is today the man many accuse of doing the most to spoil U.S. hopes for politically stabilizing Iraq. He also is viewed as one of Iran's most effective allies in Baghdad, working as actively with Tehran as he once did with Washington. Political Survivor
Prominent Sunni politician Salih al-Mutlaq has been banned, despite quitting the Ba'ath Party in 1997.
A Shi'ite politician, Chalabi has briefly held portfolios as oil minister and deputy prime minister since Hussein's overthrow. But it is as a proponent of de-Ba'athification that he has built up his greatest power.
He served on the first U.S.-established de-Ba'athification committee and then stayed on to become chairman of the follow-on Justice and Accountability Commission. That has given him and his close ally, commission director Ali Allami, the means to not just blacklist other politicians but also condemn as pro-Ba'athist any observer who protests.
Among those Chalabi accuses of being pro-Ba'athist is, ironically, Washington itself. When U.S. officials accuse the Justice and Accountability Commission of a lack of transparency, Chalabi accuses them of wanting to return Ba'athists to power.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on February 18, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said that as he attempted to convince Iraqis that Chalabi-led de-Ba'athification process "lacks transparency, it lacks buy-in from major parts of the electorate and therefore, you've got to be very careful about how you're doing this," that "incredibly enough" his efforts were "perceived as somehow the U.S. somehow wants to see Ba'athists back."
Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq website historiae.org and a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says Chalabi's goal is to ensure that the Shi'ite religious parties continue to dominate Iraqi politics.
"He seems to have identified Shi'ite sectarianism as the key to his own political survival and it seems that his idea is to support the Shi'ite Islamist parties' own strategy to remain politically influential in Iraq," Visser says.Iran's Comeback
Visser notes that Iraq's last nationwide elections, the local elections of January 2009, were regarded as a wake-up call for the religious parties. In those elections, allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dealt the religious parties a dramatic setback by running on platforms stressing national Iraqi identity over sectarian affiliation.
Particularly worrying to the religious parties was Maliki's personal success in cooperating with Sunni leaders to appeal across sectarian lines. That, along with Maliki's earlier use of force against religious militias like the Imam Al-Mahdi Army to stabilize Iraq, fanned the religious parties' fears they could be marginalized in a new nationalist-dominated order.
Iran's strategy has been to back Shi'ite religious parties, such as that of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (right).
That fear was shared by Iran, Visser says, which has close ties to the Shi'ite religious parties, and it was Chalabi who, in a meeting in Tehran in May 2009, helped forge a "comeback strategy."
Visser says that since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, it has "been a mainstay of Iranian policy in Iraq to keep the Shi'ites unified," and that this strategy was "in tatters" in early 2009 with the "fragmentation" of the Shi'a. "It seems clear now that Ahmad Chalabi played a key role in forging that counterstrategy, which basically involved a move toward greater unification once more among the Shi'ite parties."
The May meeting in Tehran brought together Muqtada al-Sadr, who was living in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, and the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who was being treated for cancer in the Iranian capital. Chalabi was a leading negotiator in making peace between the two rival factions and thus reconstituting much of the United Iraq Alliance that swept the vote in 2005.
Visser says the religious parties' comeback strategy was to "get the Ba'athist issue back on the agenda" as a way to sabotage nationalist coalitions. Tarring secular rivals as Ba'athists had worked successfully in campaigning in 2005 and this time the full weight of Chalabi's Justice and Accountability Commission was brought into play as well.
Mutlaq Out, And Maliki With Him
One of the most prominent of Iraq's secular Sunni leaders, Salih al-Mutlaq, was charged with ties to the banned Ba'athist Party even though he left it in protest in 1997 and currently is a member of parliament. His barring from this month's elections has dealt a blow to one of the biggest groupings of candidates running on a nationalist platform, the Al-Iraqiyah alliance, which also includes former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
The barring of Mutlaq put the secular Sunni camp in a tailspin from which it has yet to clearly recover. Mutlaq's Iraqi Front for National Dialogue first responded by threatening to boycott the election. But last week, Mutlaq, whose protest against the ban was overruled by an appeals board, exhorted his supporters to flock to the polls anyway.
"Stand up!" Mutlaq shouted to his supporters via a press conference on February 25. "Stand up and support your county!"
But if Chalabi's "de-Ba'athification" of Mutlaq has had a direct impact on the race, more serious still may be how reviving the Ba'athist issue in general has forced Prime Minister Maliki to back away from his own previously successful nationalist posture.
After Chalabi's list of banned candidates came out, Maliki watched it gain a striking amount of popular support, particularly among Shi'ite religious-party supporters. Those voters also form part of his own electoral base as head of the Al-Dawah Party. Apparently sensing he could not risk defending the banned candidates, he gave the Justice and Accountability Commission his full support.
Prime Minister Maliki has had to buff up his sectarian credentials.
The result, Visser says, was Maliki's loss of much of his own appeal as someone able to rise above sectarianism and project an image of a national leader for Sunnis and Shi'a alike.The Chalabi Effect
The question surrounding the March 7 elections now is to what extent Chalabi's groundwork will determine the new balance of power that comes out of the poll.
Washington hopes for a new, more sustainable balance of power between the Shi'ite and Sunni communities that will permit the United States to withdraw many of its troops. Chalabi's strategy is quite the opposite, to ensure that the existing balance of power survives both this election and the U.S. withdrawal.
Chalabi was close to Washington as a key Iraqi voice in exile during the Saddam Hussein years. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Iraqi National Congress, which he co-founded, was a major source of the information for U.S. intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and his alleged ties to Al-Qaeda.
After the war, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found strained Chalabi's ties with Washington. So did accusations he passed information to Iran.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, recently summed up Washington's view of its former ally this way: "Chalabi...has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last seven years, mostly bad."