Biden's Task: Defuse Iraq Election Strife

Iraqi Shiites attend Friday prayers i i

Iraqi Shiites attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi, an aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned U.S. intervention in the upcoming Iraqi elections during Friday's sermon in Kufa. Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad to try to ease rising tensions that have threatened to delay the March elections. Alaa al-Marjani/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alaa al-Marjani/AP
Iraqi Shiites attend Friday prayers

Iraqi Shiites attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi, an aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned U.S. intervention in the upcoming Iraqi elections during Friday's sermon in Kufa. Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad to try to ease rising tensions that have threatened to delay the March elections.

Alaa al-Marjani/AP

Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq attempting to defuse yet another political crisis over the general elections planned for March 7.

A parliamentary committee disqualified more than 500 candidates from the election because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. Charges of political manipulation have cast doubt on the credibility of the election.

The dispute over the barred candidates breaks along sectarian lines — many of the disqualified candidates are Sunnis, while the government is dominated by Shiites.

Biden is pushing for a compromise that will allow Iraq to hold a successful election and, in turn, allow the U.S. military to begin its planned drawdown of troops from Iraq.

Avoiding The 'Crisis' Label

The list of banned candidates drafted by the Accountability and Justice Committee began as rumor — at first only 17 names were leaked to the public, including prominent Sunnis.

Related Blog Post

Concern spread across Sunni Iraq that Shiites in government were trying to cut them out of the race. The full list of banned candidates trickled out into the local media this week in a confusing array of full family names that even Iraqis have trouble deciphering.

With details still emerging, high-level Iraqi officials have tried to assure the public that this is not a crisis and not an attack on Sunnis.

"It will not be a main crisis, but it is a little bit exaggerated," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said. "There are also Sunni Arabs participating in the election."

Talabani has asked Iraq's Supreme Court to rule on whether the committee's actions are legal.

An Iraqi boy uses a shoe to hit a poster of Iraqi lawmaker Dhafir al-Ani in Najaf.

An Iraqi boy uses a shoe to hit a poster of Iraqi lawmaker Dhafir al-Ani in Najaf, south of Baghdad. Al-Ani was banned from running in the March 7 election because he allegedly promoted Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Alaa al-Marjani/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alaa al-Marjani/AP

The original "de-Baathification" committee was created by American occupation forces after the 2003 invasion. Its goal was to separate the real marshals of Saddam's repressive state from the hundreds of thousands who had joined the party under duress.

The committee was renamed two years ago, but parliament never got around to selecting new officers. So the chairman, Ahmed Chalabi, stayed in place. Chalabi is a former CIA asset and a primary source of the faulty information on Saddam's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that led the Bush administration to invade Iraq.

Now, Chalabi is seen to be closer to America's main rival in the region: Iran. According to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill, Iran may be involved in creating this latest crisis. But Hill says the full list of barred candidates includes Shiites as well as Sunnis.

"The list is not just a list of Sunnis — it's a list of people who are alleged to have been involved with the Baath party," Hill said. "So there are both Shiite and Sunni on the list. The problem will be if there's not adequate transparency, certainly there are some Sunni groups who feel this may be targeted at them."

Sunnis Cry Abuse

That lack of transparency has led to uncertainty and unease among Iraqi citizens and politicians alike.

Omar al-Mashhadani, a Sunni politician, says the de-Baathification committee is abusing its power.

"I believe that it is in their authority, but they use it in [a] political way in very crucial time just very few weeks before the election," Mashhadani said. "I don't believe they are honest to deal with this."

Mashhadani claims that Iran is pushing the committee to cut out certain politicians — specifically Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading member of a secular coalition that has presented a challenge to the two largest Shiite parties. On the other hand, he believes the Americans are overreacting in their scramble to make sure the Iraqi elections go forward.

"The American side now is pushing for getting al-Mutlak back. And that's obvious," Mashhadani said. "They are doing that very sharply to get him back into the election, in any legal or illegal way."

Moving Forward

Hill denied that the U.S. is pushing on behalf of anything but a credible election. But the U.S. is walking a fine line between offering advice and giving the perception of meddling.

Biden went to Baghdad in hopes of finding a middle path. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tentatively endorsed the list of disqualifications but has urged that the public wait for an appeals process to be completed. So far, the net result may be more disillusionment with politics.

Just outside the gates of the parliament, at Baghdad's famous Haider Double falafel restaurant, Ali Ahmad says it is hard to trust anyone in politics.

"I'm sure the elections will go ahead," the 21-year-old waiter said. "But how do we tell the honorable people from the thieves and liars?"

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.