Reiterating accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Wednesday that he was in "100 percent agreement" with remarks by the top U.S. commander in Iraq regarding Iran’s involvement in a highly controversial decision that eventually barred over 140 candidates from running in Iraq’s parliamentary elections next month.
Among the candidates banned by Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) are Salih al-Mutlak and Dhafer al-Ani, two prominent Sunni Arab lawmakers.
Speaking at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace Wednesday, Ambassador Christopher Hill said Iran has a "malevolent interest" in Iraq’s affairs.
"It’s an interest that seems to emerge mostly from the Quds Force in Iraq," Hill said, referring to a division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is handling IRGC activities in Iraq. "It seems to be very much militarily and security focused."
In similar remarks Tuesday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, publicly accused Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, the senior leaders of the AJC, of links to the Quds Force, saying they "clearly are influenced by Iran."
"We have direct intelligence that tells us that," Odierno said during an event in Washington sponsored by the Institute for the Study of War, a policy research center.
The remarks by the two senior U.S. diplomatic and military officials in Iraq come a few days after Iraqi authorities said they had a final list of over 140 candidates banned from participating in the March parliamentary elections due to their alleged links to the outlawed Ba’ath Party of former president Saddam Hussein.
The ban on high-profile Sunnis who have been part of Iraqi politics after the war is considered a significant blow to Washington’s efforts to bring back the moderate elements of the mostly Sunni-led Ba’ath Party into Iraq’s political process and reintegrate Sunnis into the country’s politics.
Mutlak and Ani have strongly denied any current links to the Ba’ath Party or involvement in the Hussein regime’s atrocities against the Iraqi people. Mutlak’s Iraqi National Dialogue Front had 11 members in the outgoing parliament, and Ani headed the biggest Sunni parliamentary bloc, al- Tawafuq, which had over 40 seats in the outgoing legislature.
The AJC had initially disqualified around 500 candidates of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish backgrounds. Many of them were either taken off the list later by Iraqi courts and the AJC or were replaced with alternative candidates by their parties.
In recent days, Iraqi opponents and proponents of the AJC ban traded a series of accusations, most notably talking about outside powers’ roles in the affair. Both Mutlak and Ani pointed fingers at Iran, unequivocally charging the powerful neighbor and some Iraqi politicians close to them of standing behind the ban.
"It is not a judicial decree, it is a political one for clear political effect, and it has a clear Iranian flavor," Ani told Reuters last Monday.
For the March elections, Mutlak and Ani were part of a broad secular nationalist coalition called al-Iraqiya, which is headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite Some see the ban as a move by Shi’ite religious parties and Iran to weaken al-Iraqiya since the coalition is known for its strong stance against Iran’s disputed role in Iraq.
Al-Iraqiya has now temporarily suspended its election campaign to protest the ban.
But in a press conference Monday, Chalabi dismissed charges of Iranian interference, instead singling out U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Hill as well as Saudi Arabia as parties who interfered to overturn the ban decision.
Alarmed by the potential consequences of the ban, the U.S. administration dispatched Biden to Baghdad to pressure Iraqis to revoke the decision, which Washington fears might complicate the situation on the ground as it prepares to pull out its combat troops by the end of August 2010.
"They think that the presence of Ba’athists in the parliament of Iraq would be an important card in their hands to stop the so-called spreading influence of Iran in Iraq," Chalabi asserted.
A one-time favorite of Washington under former President George W. Bush, Chalabi fell out of favor with his backers after his home and offices were raided by U.S. military in Iraq in 2004, allegedly because he had given away sensitive intelligence to Iran. Chalabi now heads the AJC which is tasked with weeding out high-ranking Ba’athists from the public service sector. It was established in 2008, following widespread criticism of the original de-Ba’athification committee – also headed by Chalabi — that was founded in 2003 based on an order from U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer.
Later, the de-Ba’athification committee was accused of randomly removing thousands of Ba’athists, particularly Sunni Arabs, from public service without proper evidence and investigation. There has been a heated debate in Iraq and abroad in recent weeks over the legitimacy of the AJC and the legality of its decisions.
There are now serious concerns that the ban on some Sunni politicians could alienate certain segments within the Sunni community and even ignite sectarian tensions once again in the country. A report by The Washington Post Wednesday quoted an anonymous U.S. official in Iraq who warned of the possibility of a new sectarian strife when the U.S. leaves the country.
"The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we’re sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing," the official told the Post.
There are concerns in some hawkish circles in the U.S. that Washington’s influence in Iraq is waning, particularly in light of the recent Iranian role in finalizing the mass exclusion of Iraqi candidates despite immense U.S. pressure to prevent the ban.
"Does Iran get to vet Iraqi political candidates?" asked Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, and Fredrick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, in an article they published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. "Against the continuous Iranian campaign of engagement, intimidation and political machinations, the Obama administration has offered little more than moral support."
With the ban in place, it is not clear yet what excluded Sunni candidates will do in the future. Mutlak has called on his supporters not to boycott the elections, knowing a Sunni boycott could hurt their position in the future parliament.
Many Sunnis boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections, a move that many experts believe reduced the Sunni presence in the parliament. But in vague terms, Mutlak told Reuters last Sunday that "if the current political process continues along this path it will fail and finish soon."
Unlike the 2005 elections, Iraq’s new election law allows people to either vote for individual candidates or party lists. Under this new system, Sunnis are believed to perform well in heavily Sunni provinces like Anbar and Salahaddin.
But in mixed areas like Baghdad, Ninevah, Diyala and Kirkuk, where Sunnis mostly compete against Shi’ite Arabs and Kurds, any boycott or low turnout will affect their representation in the future parliament.
(Inter Press Service)