Since taking office, Barack Obama has had to deal with an economy in free fall, a self-generated health care "crisis" and his attempt at "reform," and a rising Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. So far, Iraq has been quiet enough that many in the media and public have redirected their attention to the wars du jour of Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The relative peace (punctuated by an occasional violent attack) in Iraq may be about to evaporate and cause yet another crisis for the president.
The Iraqi Accountability and Justice Commission dispenses neither, operates in secret, and is headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a suspected Iranian agent who duped the overly receptive Bush administration into invading Iraq, and Ali Faisal al-Lami, who was detained for terrorism. The commission has disqualified more than 500 candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections in March. The candidates were mostly Sunni, and the disbarment could very well re-ignite a Sunni insurgency or Shi’ite-Sunni civil war.
The ban, endorsed by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, conveniently helps his electoral mixed Shi’ite-Sunni alliance, ironically named State of the Law Coalition, by undermining his chief rival, the similarly mixed coalition of Iraqiya, which features a vice president, former prime minister, and a prominent Sunni politician who has been banned from running. Of course, in a conflict of interest so typical in Iraq, the Shi’ite coalition of Chalabi and al-Lami also benefits from the disbarment of Sunni candidates.
In 2005, the Sunnis also felt disenfranchised, which led to the rising insurgency and civil war with the Shi’ites in 2006 and 2007. So this kangaroo commission’s decision could have dramatic consequences.
The ruling seemed to shock American and foreign diplomats, who believe that the reduced violence in Iraq has occurred because U.S.-led "institution-building," artificially imposed at gunpoint, has been working. But in most societies, laws and institutions usually follow a societal consensus and informal compact among factions. Little of that exists in Iraq, so the constitution, the laws, and the institutions adopted under pressure from an occupying power are just a veneer. The bald disqualification of candidates, more typical of autocracies such as Iran, is merely a symptom of the continued fractured nature of Iraqi society.
Until those underlying fissures are dealt with, the reduction in violence will only be temporary – caused primarily by American paying off of Sunni insurgents, prior ethnic cleansing that separated warring factions, and sheer exhaustion from war rather than the forming of a societal consensus in an artificial country. Historically, in other similar ethno-sectarian conflicts, violence has ebbed and flowed over time. As baseball great Yogi Berra quipped, "It ain’t over till it’s over." And it won’t be over soon.
In addition to the barring of candidates from the election, other symptoms of the continuing factionalism have been the difficulties in passing laws governing the March election and control over oil resources, the internal infighting in the much touted mixed electoral coalitions (especially in the newly announced Iraqiya), the Shi’ite-dominated army imposing de facto martial law in Sunni areas of Baghdad, and, most ominously, the seeming loyalty of certain units in the Iraqi security forces to their Kurdish, Shi’ite, or Sunni ethno-sectarian factions rather than the Iraqi state.
Because a repeat of Sunni disenfranchisement and hostile reaction is possible, pressure is building for a strong U.S. intervention to motivate Iraqi coalitions to reach a compromise on the disbarred candidates, thus avoiding violence and ensuring a smoother electoral process. Yet even if a compromise is reached, it doesn’t deal with the underlying artificiality of the U.S. project to hold Iraq together.
The disbarment of candidates for the election is a canary in the coal mine and dramatically highlights the threat that renewed violence poses to Obama’s laudable plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of next year.