The Road Ahead

Enough with the Pope already! Back to Iraq.
It’s been a heady — and bumpy — two months for Iraq, which finally got a new president and prime minister last week when Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and Ibrahim al-Jafari, a religious Shi’ite, accepted their respective positions. But serious challenges remain as to how to bring Sunnis into the political process and how to deal with the Ba’ath Party’s legacy.
At stake is not just whether Iraqi lawmakers can stick to the ambitious deadline of Aug. 15 for a new constitution and two elections by the end of the year. Just as important is what role and how much influence Sunni Arabs will have in the parliament and the new Iraq: Will they be trusted to hold real positions of power, or will they be relegated to largely symbolic posts?

Sunnis have seen their role in public life diminished since L. Paul Bremer “dissolved”: (pdf) the army and Ba’ath Party, two pillars of Sunni rule under Saddam, in May 2003. Resentful of the loss of their privileges, many have dug in their heels and rejected everything that followed from the fall of Baghdad, refusing to take part in elections and supporting the insurgency.
But the de-Ba’athification orders expired June 28, 2004 and Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi tried to reassure the Sunnis and tackle the insurgency — largely led by out of work officers and Ba’athists — by inviting former Ba’athists back into the security forces. These guys now fill leadership positions in the Iraqi military, for instance, and in the police. An Iraqi police chief in the Green Zone is a former Ba’athist and I even met a cop who said to me that that two years ago, he was a member of the feared _fedayeen Saddam_ and had been fighting Americans in al-Dora, a Baghdad neighborhood.
So in order to keep Iraq intact and the American project from collapsing completely, the victorious Kurdish and Shi’ite leaders must convince the Sunnis there is a place for them in the new Iraq. But they must also persuade their followers — and themselves — not to overreach in their new positions and take harsh revenge for past injustices.
They aren’t off to a good start. Allawi’s “re-Ba’athification” has proven too much for some Shi’ite lawmakers, who witnessed up to 100,000 Shi’ites fall prey to Saddam’s security forces in the 1990s. So there are now renewed calls for a new program to purge the security forces of Ba’athists and compensate the party’s victims. This has meant that Iraqi parliamentary discussions, never particularly on the mild side, have been acrimonious. It got so bad that two weeks ago, Allawi stormed out of session after Hussein al-Sharhistani, a Shi’ite leader in the majority UIA, called the former prime minister’s Iraqiya coalition a haven for former Ba’athists.
“There are a number of Ba’athists on that list, which is unacceptable,” said Sharhistani. This outburst was prompted by both the UIA and Allawi putting up Sunni candidates for the largely powerless post of Speaker of the Assembly. The UIA had rejected Allawi’s candidate for speaker, Adnan Janabi, because of his family’s alleged connections to Saddam’s inner circle. In turn, the UIA proposed Mishan al-Jibouri, a UIA ally, for speaker. Sharhistani made his comments and exit Allawi, stage left. Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, an Allawi ally in parliament and who turned down the post of speaker, followed shortly after.
“They weren’t fair,” said Dr. Rajaa al-Khuzai, a member of Allawi’s Iraqiya list, who was present and confirmed Sharhistani’s comments, “Everybody should look at his list carefully. There are a lot of Ba’athist on all the lists.” She noted that Sharhistani was a Ba’athist who worked on Saddam’s nuclear program before he was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib.
Finally, after Talabani was elected president last week, the former Kurdish separatist made a call for national unity in his acceptance speech. However, after he left the podium Shi’ite lawmakers stood up and again denounced Allawi’s policies. It was an ugly scene, with calls for censuring Allawi and purging people from the government.
To watching Sunnis, such calls for victors’ justice are alarming. Western officials also are concerned. “Coalition countries have invested a great deal building up the capability of the Iraqi security services,” said one Western diplomat, who noted that many Iraqis were forced to join the party to get a job, a passport or attend college. “They should not be removed from their jobs merely because of their membership, if they’re competent and if they’re loyal to the new state.”
Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalaan, who once said the UIA was haven for Iranian agents, has complained that any Ba’athists currently in the military over the rank of Lt. Major were appointed by the Coalition, not him.
Meanwhile, the people who suffered at the hands of the Ba’athists are still awaiting compensation from a government that’s still unable to provide water and electricity on a regular basis, much less handle complex legal claims. These people are angry and especially worried about reappointing their old oppressors into positions that allow them control of the police and other security forces — long the tool of state violence. And who can blame them?
Yet, almost every Iraqi will acknowledge that not all Ba’athists are criminals. But the problem comes in defining _which_ Ba’athists actually were. In order to keep a job that Ba’ath membership granted, it was often required to do distasteful and corrupting things. Too often low- and mid-level Ba’athists were in a terrifying Catch-22: If they snitched on a friend or colleague, as the party often demanded, they could see that friend taken away, never to be seen again. But if they didn’t make the report, they could lose their job or disappear themselves. Are people who made the reports and ratted out friends for fear for their own life criminals? It’s a good question.
In last week’s strident sessions, Jafari, the new prime minister finally quieted his colleagues by promising to set up a special committee to study what to do about the Ba’ath party. But while a dispute over de-Ba’athification doesn’t threaten the formation of cabinet — the Shi’ites and Kurds can form a cabinet without reaching out to the Sunnis if they wish — just how far Iraq’s new leaders are willing to reach out to the former rulers looks to be getting shorter every day.

One Comment on “The Road Ahead”

  1. The Road Ahead

    It’s been a heady — and bumpy — two months for Iraq, which finally got a new president and prime minister last week when Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and Ibrahim al-Jafari, a religious Shi’ite, accepted their respective positions. But…