By Andrew England
Published: February 1 2010 16:42 | Last updated: February 1 2010 16:42
Yesterday, dozens of Shia pilgrims in Baghdad became the latest victims of a suicide bomb attack. Last week, three hotels in the Iraqi capital and an interior ministry office were the targets – each blast underlining the security threats that continue to blight Iraq seven years after the US-led invasion.
With the clock ticking down to parliamentary elections, an upsurge in violence was expected. The attackers are seeking to spread fear ahead of the March 7 vote and undermine faith in the authorities, Iraqi politicians say.
Yet while they condemn the blasts and insist they will not be swayed on their path to the polls, it is politicians, as much as the bombers, who threaten the credibility of the election process.
A dispute over the exclusion of some 500 candidates could set back the tentative gains made over the past two years in easing Shia-Sunni tensions. The controversy erupted when the candidates, many of them Sunnis, were barred from contesting the vote because of alleged connections to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.
Details of who is excluded have been murky but some high-profile casualties have been identified, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent secular Sunni politician. Government officials insist the process is not aimed at a particular community, saying Shia candidates were also barred. But the danger is that Sunnis will interpret the move as a crude attempt to marginalise them by the Shia majority that has dominated politics since the 2003 invasion.
In 2005, the credibility of elections was undermined by a Sunni boycott and a wave of sectarian violence in the following two years dragged the country perilously close to civil war.
Yet by the time provincial elections were held a year ago, matters had improved significantly and tensions had eased. Sunnis turned out in substantial numbers during that vote – an important step forward for the country.
But now Mr Mutlaq and Ahmed Abu Risha, a leader of the Awakening movement, are raising the spectre of another boycott. It might be political posturing but it is a worrying development.
The de-Ba’athification issue has been contentious ever since Saddam was toppled. Under the dictator’s rule, large sections of society had to be members of the Ba’ath party to progress in their professional lives – doctors, teachers and civil servants, not just members of the security forces.
The list of banned candidates was drawn up by the Accountability and Justice Commission, which was set up in 2008 to replace an earlier de-Ba’athification body. Yet the criteria used to disqualify candidates are opaque and its legal status questionable because parliament has yet to approve its commissioners. Further muddying of the waters comes from the fact that the man in charge of the process is Ali Faisal al-Lami, a candidate himself, who is close to Ahmed Chalabi, a controversial figure also contesting the elections.
The result is that whichever way the government paints the exclusions, the commission is being seen as a political tool to hammer competitors. According to Human Rights Watch, 72 of those banned are from Mr Mutlaq’s Iraqiya list and 67 are members of Iraq Unity, another important secular coalition to which Mr Abu Risha belongs. The candidates have the right to appeal but there is little clarity about that process.
Diplomats say a good portion of some 350 candidates who have sought to overturn their bans have been successful. But many of those are minor players, while the case of Mr Mutlaq – which affects the mood of many Sunnis – has yet to be resolved. It is now critical that Iraq’s leaders are seen to act responsibly – and transparently – to find a solution that does not alienate Sunnis.
If a substantial proportion of Sunni voters does not take part in the election, it would be a serious setback. With the US working towards its 2011 withdrawal, it is essential that all groups feel they have a stake in moving the political process forward.
If not, it will provide fuel for extremists – such as those behind the attacks – in a fragile nation that already faces numerous hurdles if it is to achieve stability.