Analysis: Iraq's president vs Saddam past
BRIAN MURPHY The Oklahoman Comments 0 Published: January 24, 2010
BAGHDAD (AP) — To hear Iraq's president tell it: the country's future depends on purging its past links with Saddam Hussein's regime.
And Nouri al-Maliki is saying it every chance he gets. He has become something of a one-man tribunal passing judgment on the reach of suspected loyalists to Saddam's now-outlawed Baath party.
Al-Maliki's pronouncements — whether in parliament after deadly bombings in Baghdad in December or in talks Saturday with visiting Vice President Joe Biden — all dwell on one theme: that Shiite-led Iraq can never be secure until it has weeded out all remnants of Saddam's Sunni-dominated power base.
But al-Maliki's preoccupation with hunting Baathists comes with potential pitfalls.
On a pure political level, it risks alienating Sunnis at a pivotal time for his government. These Sunni votes may be needed by al-Maliki's bloc in March 7 parliamentary elections to fend off challenges from rival Shiites who want to unseat him. In the more cluttered realm of public image, al-Maliki looks increasingly rigid just when key ally Washington is looking for some political finesse.
He appears unwilling to temper — even slightly — his drive to name and shame perceived Saddam-era throwbacks. Sunni leaders object more to the method than the message. They say the steamroll approach cannot distinguish between those who were key Saddam apparatchiks and others who expressed support for the Baath party to secure jobs, study in universities or simply get exit visas for international travel.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 opened the door for the majority Shiites to take the upper hand.
"Al-Maliki sees Baathists everywhere," said David Schenker, who follows Iraqi affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This kind of policy, however, fails to take into account the depths of Baathism. It was far-reaching. It didn't just have its hard-core ideological followers, but also other Iraqis who were supporters just to get on."
To be sure, al-Maliki's worries have some real grounding. The U.S. military and others believe elements of Saddam's former regime became part of the wider Sunni-led insurgency. Al-Maliki has gone a step farther: directly accusing Saddam loyalists for carrying out three huge bombings in Baghdad since August and denouncing neighboring Syria for allegedly harboring them.
In December — days after a series of blasts killed 127 people — al-Maliki came before angry parliament members and repeated his fist-pounding against the Baath party threat.
It was widely interpreted as an attempt to divert attention from serious security lapses around government buildings — the main targets of Baghdad bombing in recent months. The latest run at suspected Saddam-era sympathizers has put al-Maliki under even more heat.
Al-Maliki has strongly backed a vetting process that has blacklisted at least 512 candidates from March elections because of suspected Baath Party ties. The roster includes Shiites as well as Sunnis. But some Sunni leaders see it as political tool to knock out candidates without any clear evidence and raise suspicions before voting.
Such rancor runs straight to the White House. American officials worry about anything that could raise questions about the fairness of the election, which is seen as an important step in Iraq's political reconciliation and a boost toward accelerating U.S. troops withdrawals. Biden came to Baghdad to drive home that point. Yet al-Maliki was not swayed during talks Saturday.
He repeated the need to exclude Saddam's followers from any important roles in Iraq — a policy known as Debaathification that was launched in 2003 by America's post-invasion overseers. In an Iraqi-style inquisition, al-Maliki also is demanding formal repudiations of those accused of Baath party ties.
In a speech to Interior Ministry workers on Sunday, al-Maliki openly taunted the remnants of Saddam's backers.
"We challenge them to try a coup or change the path of the political process," he said. "They cannot."
On Friday, al-Maliki used the metaphor of traditional Quranic justice to describe his drive to keep any pro-Saddam sentiments from Iraq's political and security institutions.
"Their hands should be cut off," he told a group of Shiite clan leaders.
Al-Maliki's past may highlight his unbending views. He was a member of a Shiite militant group against Saddam and fled Iraq in 1979 after learning of plans to have him killed. He spent most of his exile in Iran — including much of the 1980-88 war with Iraq — and was part of a Shiite network seeking to topple Saddam's Baath party fortress.
"The interests of the country lie in excluding those are glorifying the former regime and tie themselves with its ugly past," said al-Maliki on state-run Iraqiyya TV on Friday.
Many other places — such as post-apartheid South Africa to post-Iron Curtain Europe — have struggled with how to put to rest their pasts. But few places have gone through with the degree of pressures on Iraq, which must rebuild its security forces and reach some of political common ground while U.S. troops concentrate on exiting by the end of next year.
Al-Maliki should be mindful that settling scores with the Saddam era is not the priority for everyone, said Baghdad-based political analyst Hadi Jalo.
Politicians may pay a price for being seen as ignoring more routine concerns about finding work and rebuilding roads and electrical grids, he said. Al-Maliki's rivals, including former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, could benefit.
"Al-Maliki is only one part of the Shiite community. There are other Shiite groups that have different approaches," said Jalo.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who studies regional affairs at Emirates University, sees al-Maliki's campaign as a bit of political evolution for Iraq.
"This is a taste of the new Iraq," he said. "It's moving violent things to more political things. It's not easy. Politics is always ugly."
Brian Murphy, the AP bureau chief in Dubai, has covered Middle East affairs for more than a decade.
An AP News Analysis
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