DAMASCUS - United States Vice President Joseph Biden landed in Baghdad on Friday
amid speculation that he might help hammer out differences between Sunnis and
Shi'ites ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections.
Sunni politicians are furious at having a number of their candidates
disqualified by the Accountability and Justice Committee, with the silent
blessing of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The list of 511 banned candidates in
fact includes more Shi'ite politicians than Sunnis, but a number of senior
Sunnis are included.
According to reports from Baghdad, the blacklist could snowball to include
6,000 candidates, with many more former Ba'athists
and secular Sunnis who are challenging Maliki's State of Law Coalition
Biden made it plain, though, that he would not get involved. "I want to make
clear I am not here to resolve that issue [of the banned candidates]. This is
for Iraqis, not for me ... The United States condemns the crimes of the
previous regime and we fully support Iraq's constitutional ban on the return to
power of Saddam's Ba'ath party," Biden was reported as saying.
Given this, Sunnis will have to search for allies elsewhere. Shi'ite
politicians are divided: either silent about the disqualifications or vocally
supportive of them - with only a handful saying that these Sunni politicians
were as entitled to holding a parliamentary seat as any of their Shi'ite
Maliki and his team are afraid, with due right, that the power they obtained
through the elections of 2005 might be taken away from them at the polling
stations if Sunnis run and vote en masse in the elections.
Iran, which generously supported Shi'ites in the 1980s and 1990s, might be too
busy with its own problems in 2010 to worry about its Iraqi proxies. In the
1920s, when modern Iraq was first founded, it was the Shi'ites who boycotted
elections and this single action resulted in eight decades of Sunni rule that
lasted until the downfall of Saddam in 2003.
Two years later, Sunnis boycotted the elections, resulting in the overwhelming
victory of the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of seven
Shi'ite parties that included the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), al-Dawa
and the Sadrists. Maliki wants to make sure that the results of 2005 are
repeated in 2010 and he will resort to unorthodox means, like banning his
adversaries from running for power, to achieve that result. Otherwise, his days
in the premiership are clearly numbered.
Disqualified Sunni politicians are frantically looking for regional allies to
back their claims, but it might be advisable for them look within Iraq for
potential Shi'ite allies who share a desire to bring down Maliki. Potential
allies are two hopefuls for the premiership: vice president and head of the
SIIC, Adel Abdul Mehdi, and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mehdi has
had his eyes set on the premiership since 2006, but was famously defeated by a
single vote within the UIA.
Jaafari was ejected from power that same year, accused by many of being
responsible for the sectarian unrest after the February 2006 bombing of a holy
Shi'ite shrine in the mixed town of Samarrah. Both are heavyweights within the
Shi'ite community; the powerful business elites back Mehdi while Jaafari is
supported by influential clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Although both men are not exactly enthusiasts of bringing Sunnis back into the
top levels of power, they nevertheless have tried at different intervals since
2005 to accommodate Sunnis, with the common target of bringing down the prime
minister. Both men have realized that pushing Sunnis into the wilderness in
2003 was a bad idea, given that Iraq cannot be ruled solely by Shi'ite
politicians. Their claim is supported by another Shi'ite heavyweight, Muqtada
al-Sadr, who is a member of the Iraqi National Alliance that includes the SIIC
If these three statesmen, Mehdi, Muqtada and Jaafari, come out to challenge the
disqualifications - regardless of whether or not they believe in them - then it
would be very difficult for the Accountability and Justice Committee to push
ahead with the bans.
President Jalal Talabani has also questioned the legality of the
disqualifications, claiming that no such regulatory authority was mandated by
parliament. He nevertheless is unimpressed with Biden showing up to attempt to
dictate solutions, claiming that with George W Bush out of office, there is
very little the Americans can impose on ordinary Iraqis.
A combined internal effort is what all Iraqis need to solve the existing
gridlock, otherwise, if the ban continues, Sunnis are going to boycott the
elections and return to the underground. This could lead to a war on the
streets of Baghdad and beyond that would spell disaster for Maliki or whoever
Jaafari knows that very well out of experience, since it was the Sunni
insurgency that brought down his government in 2006. The Sunnis are saying that
they are now capable of winning the state through the ballot box, rather than
with bullets, but to do this they have to be given their right to run in the
Bringing them into the power circles, and having them help shoulder
responsibility for security and nation-building, is the only way to prevent
them from becoming a state-within-a-state. Biden can no longer deliver in Iraq
- and neither can President Barack Obama, who is preparing to withdraw his
troops and thereby his ability to influence others.
Iraq's politicians, who will outlive the Americans in Baghdad, hold the keys to
stability for the years to come and that can only be achieved when Sunnis
participate fully in the political process.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.