Iraq is embroiled in a crisis over the banning of more than 500 candidates from the March elections over their alleged ties to the banned Ba'ath Party.
What's behind the crisis and where does it go from here? RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel put those questions to Radio Free Iraq's political correspondent, Faris Omar.
RFE/RL: The election crisis in Iraq is widely seen as a high-stakes affair that, if handled badly, could alienate the Sunni community just when the March election is supposed to build national unity and facilitate the U.S. troop pullout planned to start later this year. One reason the crisis is seen this way is that early reports indicated most of the more than 500 blacklisted candidates were Sunnis. But more recent reports suggest that the blacklist includes both Sunni and Shi'ite figures in relatively even numbers. What do we know about the list and the names it contains?
Faris Omar: The list has been the source of huge controversy ever since the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice began announcing blacklisted entities, both parties and individuals, early this month. But the commission has never published the names on the list, and mainly we have learned their identity only when the aggrieved parties themselves complain to the media, or from better or less well-informed leaks.
But today it seems the broader picture that is emerging is that the blacklist includes both Sunni and Shi'ite candidates. The commander of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, said this week that the blacklist is "reportedly 55 percent or so Shi'a and 45 percent or so Sunni."
RFE/RL: Is there anything these blacklisted candidates have in common?
Omar: According to the list-maker, the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, what they have in common is some former or present connection to the banned Ba'ath Party. But the most prominent name in Salih al-Mutlaq, who left the Ba'ath Party in protest in 1977 and has since been an MP [member of parliament], participated in drafting the constitution, and leads a bloc of 11 deputies in parliament.
Sunni leaders like him, and even many Shi'a who were forced into membership in the Ba'ath, have long complained that de-Ba'athification has become a political tool and for this reason the original de-Ba'athification commission was replaced, in the interest of reconciliation, by the present Commission for Accountability and Justice.
Now, some politicians have noted publicly that the blacklisted candidates seem almost entirely to be secularists. The leader of the Iraqi National Party, Mithal al-Alusi, who is famous for his opposition to the Ba'ath Party, said recently that none of the excluded names belong to the Iraqi religious parties, either Shi'ite or Sunni.
Remarks like that raise the possibility that what really could be at stake is not a ban intended to marginalize the Sunni community but to weaken the chance of secularist parties in the upcoming election. That would strengthen the chances of the religious parties at the polls.
RFE/RL: To what extent does Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki support the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice? The commission, of course, like it predecessor agency in charge of de-Ba'athification, aims to keep all former members of the illegal Ba'ath Party, except very junior figures, out of public office. But the members of the Commission for Accountability and Justice itself were never confirmed by parliament, as required under the constitution. Is Maliki standing by them?
Omar: Yes, al-Maliki, along with the president and speaker of parliament, has called any complaints regarding the banning of candidates a purely legal matter which should be solved by recourse to a seven-judge appeals panel.
But there is an interesting thing to note here, and that is that al-Maliki's State of Law coalition itself could stand to gain from the ban if it mainly targets secular politicians. His coalition includes not just his own Islamic Dawa Party but other Shi'ite and Sunni parties which unite under the banner of nonsectarianism.
Al-Maliki's party faces at least two powerful secular-based parties in the poll, a coalition who most prominent figure is former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and the Iraq Unity party led by Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani.
RFE/RL: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has directly questioned the competence of the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, precisely because its members have not been confirmed by the parliament. Talabani also has called on the president of Iraq's Constitutional Court to look into the legality of the commission. How much weight do his objections carry?
Omar: So far, it seems not much. The Constitutional Court has said anybody with objections should appeal to the seven-judge appeals panel, which is part of Iraq's legal system. That, of course, is also the prime minister's position and the majority opinion in the parliament itself.
The parliament, which adjourned on Tuesday [January 26] ahead of the upcoming election, is overwhelmingly made up of representatives from religious parties. When the parliament adjourned, its leaders said it would only reconvene ahead of the election if there were truly an extraordinary need. That suggests there is little chance of parliament disbarring the commission members.
U.S. Hopes For Solution
RFE/RL: There have been many attempts in the Western press to find a "smoking gun" in this crisis, that is, a mastermind who set the commission -- which took no active role in Iraq's earlier elections -- in motion. Some have pointed to the veteran Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. One reason Chalabi's name comes up is that he is also close to the head of the commission, Ali Faisal Allami, who equally is no friend of the United States. Until last August, Allami was in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq on suspicion of being an important commander of an Iran-backed "Special Group" that targeted U.S. soldiers in bombings. The implication is that someone is trying to sabotage the March election by making de-Ba'athification a political tool and thus complicate Washington's plans in Iraq. Could Chalabi be that someone?
Omar: Chalabi is an easy candidate for such a role because of his past history of intriguing and backroom dealing and switching sides. Remember, he initially urged the United States to topple Saddam only to fall out with Washington later and draw closer instead to its arch-enemies, Iran and the party of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But there is no hard evidence that Chalabi masterminded this. So, that is yet another open question in this crisis, which is full of open questions.
RFE/RL: Washington, as we have mentioned, is very eager to resolve the blacklist dispute because it fears it could taint the legitimacy of the election results, or even keep some constituencies away from the polls. For this reason, Vice President Joe Biden flew into Baghdad on January 23, reportedly with the suggestion that any de-Ba'athification vetting of the candidates wait until after the poll. Did this suggestion get much traction?
Omar: The early indications are that it did not. Jalal Talabani, despite his eagerness as head of state to resolve this crisis, said that waiting until after the election would mean that the people to be vetted would already have parliamentary immunity. No one else has spoken up in support of the proposal attributed to Biden, so maybe the solution will have to be found elsewhere.
RFE/RL: Is it possible to predict now how this crisis might end?
Omar: No, because the only institutional solution the players seem to be able to agree upon is to let the appeals process take its course. Interestingly, Salih al-Mutlaq, the most prominent Sunni politician on the blacklist, has said he has full confidence in the appeals process. But how fast that appeals process will go is impossible to know, the elections are rapidly approaching, and the banned candidates cannot campaign in the meantime.
Perhaps the thing to remember is that the weaker player in all this is the people who have been blacklisted. If they are mostly secularists, they are much weaker than the religious-party politicians who currently dominate the scene. If they are mostly Sunni, they are again a minority. The stronger player is those who support the blacklist, and whether they are just interested in running down the clock before the election to improve their own chances at the polls, or are genuinely interested in delivering a knock-out blow to their rivals, remains to be seen.