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The 511 De-Baathification Cases: Sectarianism or Despotism?

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

20 January 2010

Late Tuesday night, the Iraqi television station Sumaria published the full list of 511 Iraqis that have been barred from standing as candidates in the 7 March parliamentary elections with reference to the de-Baathification procedures. The list says a good deal about the nature of the recent decision by the de-Baathification board – what it is, what it isn’t, and not least what it means in terms of unexpected complications for the Iraqi elections process at a time when many observers thought the institutional framework had been safely locked in place.

Admittedly, this list presents several analytical challenges. As is standard in Iraqi bureaucracy, individuals are identified not by the names they use normally, but by their own first names followed by the first name of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Conversely, in every-day usage, the first name is used normally in combination by maybe one or two of these (and this could be the great-grandfather rather than the father for example), or the patronymics are discarded altogether in favour of a nisba name, indicating tribal or geographical origin. Just to give an example, if one wants to find out whether the Nujayfi brothers of Mosul have been de-Baathified or not, one needs to know that they would appear in this material as “Athil bin Abd al-Aziz bin Muhammad” and “Usama bin Abd al-Aziz bin Muhammad” respectively, without any reference to the Nujayfi nisba. Or for Tariq al-Hashimi, again just for the sake of a hypothetical example: Tariq bin Ahmad bin Bakr bin Ahmad. Further complicating the picture is the fact that this list contains no geographical or party references (which usually facilitates this kind of analysis for example when candidate lists are under consideration). In short, while the Iraqi way of doing this kind of indexing is clearly superior to Western standards in terms of reducing the risk for mix-ups (i.e. there is no John Smith; even in difficult cases there will be four variables, say, Ali Muhammad Hussein Abdallah), it is problematic in terms of analysis because of the sometimes great discrepancies between the formal registers and the names that are familiar from the media. As a result, oversight is almost inevitable in a material of 500 plus candidates.

This methodological challenge relates directly to the first important analytical point about the lists: Even in those cases where collating register names with the forms familiar from every-day usage is possible, it seems that many of these individuals are relatively unknown. As soon as one proceeds beyond the few cases that are already famous from having been repeated in the media all the time – the exclusion of people like Salih al-Mutlak of Iraqiyya, Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim, the defence minister, and Nehro Abd al-Karim, an Iraqi nationalist of Kurdish origin – many of the other names are not particularly prominent (and, no, the Nujayfi brothers are not on the list). For example, a few weeks ago, many Shiite websites circulated lists of 40 alleged Baathists that were expected to be banned. (Apparently, the number “40” had been inspired by a rumour to the effect that some Iraqi politicians said at least 40 Baathists would secure seats in the next parliament.) However, out of these 40, only around 10 actually appear on the final list of banned candidates. They include people like Saadi al-Jibburi (Saadi bin Faysal bin Abdallah bin Ibrahim), an independent candidate, Ahmad Hamid Ahmad Jirjis, an independent nationalist from Kirkuk, Muzahim al-Tamimi (Muzahim bin Mustafa bin Mansur bin Kaanan, above), a Shiite tribal leader from Basra affiliated with the secular-nationalist Unity of Iraq bloc of Jawad al-Bulani, as well as Abdallah Jasim Muhammad Ali (al-Muhammadawi) and Jawhar Mahi al-Din, also both from Unity of Iraq. Similarly, looking at the level of heads of coalition sub-entities, it appears to be only Unity of Iraq that has been hit by the exclusion of two of the leaders of its constituent parts (the last two mentioned above) in addition to the well-known cases of Nehru Abd al-Karim (who heads the Coalition of National Unity) and Salih al-Mutlak (who used to head the Hiwar front but is technically no longer a party head after its merger with Wifaq).

A second dimension that needs to be taken note of relates to sectarian issues. American analysts branded the list as an overt “anti-Sunni” measure before it had even been printed. What the list actually shows is a typically Iraqi, far more complex picture. There are certainly Shiites and Kurds on the list, too, as shown by the prominent examples of Nehru Abd al-Karim (above) and Muzahim al-Tamimi. And even from the grey mass of this material it is possible to conclude without being too essentialist that the presence of more Shiites is attested to by five instances of the name Abd al-Hussein, two of Abd al-Hassan and one Abd Ali, to give just a few examples of highly obvious Shiite personal names. There are likely hundreds more Shiites here; the key point is that this is not quite as black and white as the media would like us to believe.

As regards the level of party affiliations, as expected there seems to be a tendency of hitting at the secular and nationalist parties. Still, Maliki’s list has taken a few casualties beyond the defence minister: Some had expected Abbad Mutlak Hamud to be banned but he wasn’t; conversely Salih Jaafar has been excluded. Even the Iraqi National Alliance, which controls the whole process through Ali al-Lami, has de-Baathified at least one of its own, although this has apparently been done for good measure and affects a candidate far down on its Basra list: Rashash al-Imara (Rashash bin Jiyad, above; thankfully at least some of these names stand out!), an independent candidate with a past in the Iraqi security forces.

The main problem with the de-Baathification measures, then, refers not so much to systematic and overt sectarianism or partisanship as such as to despotism more generally, albeit clearly with the ulterior goal of perpetuating a sectarian political atmosphere. The basic problem here is the attempt by the accountability and justice board to portray its decisions as “legal” and “constitutional” when they clearly are not – and the failure of the rest of the “democratic” system in the new Iraq to offer any meaningful resistance. Previous developments have shown that the accountability and justice board is an anachronism that lacks a clear legal basis after the passage of the accountability and justice law in 2008, that the formation of a seven-judge appeals court (to which these decisions may be appealed within three days) remedies this situation only in a partial way, that the Iraqi elections commission seems to be in league with the accountability and justice board in this matter, and that even if one accepts the dubious existence of the current de-Baathification board, its application of the relevant laws appears to be both partisan and selective in the extreme.

In sum, rather than being an attempt at a complete exclusion or elimination of political enemies, these de-Baathification measures seem aimed at intimidating and terrorising, with the overarching motive of keeping sectarian issues on the agenda. Any attempt at remedying the situation must keep this aspect in mind: What is at stake here is not a question of “Sunni participation” versus a “Sunni boycott”; rather this is about the very fundamentals of the post-2003 system of government in Iraq and the importance of offering hope to those Iraqis who wish to get rid of the narrow sectarian categories altogether. Hence, even if the US should miraculously succeed in reversing or postponing the de-Baathification moves, the ball will simply be kicked further down the road: The so-called independent elections commission (IHEC) which will oversee the elections is in practice owned by the same Shiite Islamist parties that control the accountability and justice board, and that authored the decision to exclude 511 candidates with reference to de-Baathification and with support from Iran. To really make a difference, what is needed today is some kind of appeals institution that does not mechanically replicate the structures of power in Iraq that have emerged since 2003 on an ethno-sectarian basis and their underlying sectarian logic, which after all is what the accountability and justice board is fighting so hard to preserve. An internationalised complaints procedure for the elections inspired by the one used in Afghanistan could be one possible option. On the whole, it is of course a good sign that US policy-makers today seem concerned about the gravity of the situation, but if they are really serious about solving it then they should realise that none of their current friends in Baghdad are capable of doing so in a truly sustainable fashion.

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