Editor's Note: Read updates on the JAC ban: February 4, 2010, February 10, 2010, and February 25, 2010.
On January 9, Iraq’s Justice and Accountability Commission barred nine predominantly Sunni political parties and 458 individuals from participating in the country’s March parliamentary elections on grounds that they were affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s regime or apologetic of the former regime. The release on January 26 by the Independent High Electoral Commission of the official list of banned parties and individuals revised downward earlier estimates that as many as fifteen parties and 500 candidates would be prevented from participating in the elections. Despite this revision, the decision by the Shia-controlled JAC, the successor to the de-Baathification Commission, affects several of Iraq’s top Sunni figures and parties, sealing the increasingly sectarian character of the elections. It also makes it more likely that Sunni parties and candidates, who are already highly divided, will fare poorly in the elections, further complicating the already difficult process of reconciliation. Indeed, the integrity of the election process has been tainted and, while a compromise among Iraq’s political elite is likely, Sunni-Shia reconciliation will face yet another impediment with the JAC’s move.
Politics of the Decision
The JAC is headed by Ali al-Lami, a member of the Iraqi National Congress, which is part of the Iraqi National Alliance, the umbrella group of all major Shia parties except for the Prime Minister’s Dawa. Al-Lami himself is a candidate on the INA list, making the ban a major conflict of interest. Some members of the parliamentary Justice and Accountability committee have criticized the decision, claiming it was politicized. The commission provided no evidence to support the bans, only lists of coalition candidates, making the decision even more controversial.
A complete analysis of the precise identity and affiliations of banned politicians is not available at this point and the Iraqi press is rife with rumors and speculation
. The ban apparently affects Shia and Sunni Arabs in almost equal numbers, as well as some Kurds. Most of the banned politicians and parties are minor players in the election and their removal will have little if any impact. But the most prominent among the banned politicians are Sunni and this will have an impact on both the election outcome and on the prospects for reconciliation. The two predominantly Shia coalitions, al-Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Accord, have not lost any important members, and neither have the Kurdish parties. Sunni and non-sectarian coalitions, on the other hand, have been severely affected. The Iraqi National Movement has lost not only two pivotal members, but also some 70 additional members.
The JAC gave excluded candidates three days to appeal the decision. Final rulings on eligibility for the elections will be made by an ad hoc judicial committee appointed by the legislature, but on January 21, President Jalal Talabani added a new dimension to the process when he declared his discomfort and called on the Iraqi Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the decision.
No matter what, the final determination will inevitably be made on political rather than legal grounds. The JAC justified the bans in part on the basis of Article 7 of the constitution, is quite ambiguous, which reads: “No entity or program, under any name, may adopt racism, terrorism, the calling of others infidels, ethnic cleansing, or incite, facilitate, glorify, promote, or justify thereto, especially the Saddamist Baath in Iraq and its symbols, regardless of the name that it adopts. This may not be part of the political pluralism in Iraq. This will be organized by law.”
The most prominent of the banned candidates is Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was banned together with his Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. Not only was he banned, but he was also warned not to appeal the decision because the case against him is very strong. Saleh al-Mutlaq, who admittedly has a Baathist past although he left the party in the late 1970s, is undoubtedly an Arab nationalist. Although he was the most prominent Sunni member of the commission that drafted the constitution in 2005, he refused to accept it because it granted autonomy to Kurdistan and did not stress Iraq’s Arab identity. As a consequence, he also refused to join other Sunni parties in the Tawafuq bloc before the 2005 parliamentary elections, because they accepted the constitution. Instead, he formed his own Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.
The banning of al-Mutlaq and his party is a blow to the Iraqi Nationalist Movement or Iraqiya, the major secular coalition running in the forthcoming elections. Al-Mutlaq’s major partner in the INM is former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shia. Initially, Allawi threatened to pull out of the elections unless the ban on al-Mutlaq was rescinded, but he has since toned down his statements. Without the participation of al-Mutlaq—the coalition’s most important Sunni member—it will be more difficult for the Iraqi National Movement to maintain its non-sectarian image.
Interestingly, major Sunni politicians have not strongly protested the banning of al-Mutlaq and other candidates. Several factors have contributed to this quiescence. One is undoubtedly fear that vehement protest would invite the JAC to take steps against them or push their potential supporters in mixed population provinces to view them as Baath Party apologists. Furthermore, al-Mutlaq was controversial among Sunni politicians, both because of his refusal to ally with other Sunni parties and because lately he allegedly defended Baathism in his speeches. Another factor that may explain the muted reaction is self-interest: Al-Mutlaq and the Iraqi National Movement were believed to have the most support among non-Shia majority coalitions; al-Mutlaq’s sidelining may thus provide new opportunities for Sunni parties—at least unless al-Mutlaq decides to call on his supporters to boycott the elections once again, a possible but unlikely scenario.
The Sunni party that has protested the banning of al-Mutlaq most strongly has been the Iraqi Islamic Party. The IIP, increasingly isolated from other Sunni parties, is expected to lose many seats in the elections, and it may see protest as a way of reviving its appeal.
Interestingly, the ban does not appear to have affected major members of the various Awakening Councils, the major parties of which are now present in three of the important coalitions, the Anbar Salvation Council
in the Shia-dominant Iraqi National Alliance, the Anbar Salvation National Front
in Prime Minister al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance, and the Awakening Council of Iraq
in the secular Unity Alliance of Iraq. Instead, it has recently been announced that 50,000 Sons of Iraq, as members of the Awakening Councils’ militias are known, have now been given public sector jobs. The fact that the Awakening Councils-related political organizations were not affected by the ban confirms that JAC’s decisions were affected by political considerations. Many of the Awakening Councils’ members were part of the resistance against the U.S. occupation with ties to the Saddam regime. Banning members of these organizations, however, could cause them to tilt again against the government, and in some cases, lose the major Sunni allies within INA and the State of Law. Thus, they were left alone.
Intense negotiations are taking place in Iraq in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Vice President Joe Biden visited Iraq on January 22-23 to encourage Iraqis to reach a compromise solution and discussions are under way in Iraq on possible mechanisms. Whatever the outcome, the integrity of the election process in Iraq has been affected and the consequences for reconciliation will be severe even if a compromise solution is reached.