US envoy accuses Iran over poll ban
By Mohammed A Salih
WASHINGTON - Reiterating accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq's internal
affairs, the United States ambassador to Iraq said on Wednesday that he was in
"100% agreement" with remarks by the top US commander in Iraq regarding Iran's
involvement in a highly controversial decision that eventually barred 145
candidates from running in Iraq's parliamentary elections next month.
Among the candidates banned by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission
(AJC) are Saleh al-Mutlak and Dhafer al-Ani, two prominent Sunni Arab
Speaking at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace Wednesday, Christopher
Hill said Iran had 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 on Tuesday, General Ray Odierno, the top US military
commander in Iraq, publicly accused Ahmad 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
The remarks by the two senior US diplomatic and military officials in Iraq come
a few days after Iraqi authorities said they had a final list of 145 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 Saddam 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 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
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
"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 on 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 Iyad 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
But in a press conference on Monday, Chalabi dismissed charges of Iranian
interference, instead singling out US Vice President Joe Biden and Hill as well
as Saudi Arabia as parties who interfered to overturn the ban decision.
Alarmed by the potential consequences of the ban, the US 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
the US 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 US
civilian administrator of Iraq, L 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
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 on
Wednesday quoted an anonymous US official in Iraq who warned of the possibility
of a new sectarian strife when the US 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 US 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 US
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 neo-conservative 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 [Barack] Obama administration has offered little more than
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
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
expected 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.