Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude

When a law was passed back in February that was supposed to ease the scope and severity of earlier de-Baathification efforts in Iraq, the media dutifuly repeated Bush administration spin about the law's significance in terms of signalling a new era of national reconciliation. That celebration was premature. As with most such initiatives, the focus must remain trained on the implementation of the law, not the pageantry of the signing ceremony. In terms of affecting the trajectory of actual reconciliation in Iraq, press releases count for little:

When the Iraqi parliament passed a law in January aimed at rehiring former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, U.S. President George W. Bush praised it as a step towards national reconciliation.

The Accountability and Justice Law replaced the deBaathification Law, under which tens of thousands of former Baathists, mostly Sunni Arabs, were purged from government and security posts following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

But five months later, implementation of the law is bogged down by infighting between politicians, and the committee once tasked with hunting out Baathists in government has found itself in the odd position of overseeing the process of rehiring them or offering them state pensions.

The government has still not appointed a seven-member panel to replace the deBaathification Committee, whose enthusiastic purge of Baathists from government posts prompted minority Sunni Arabs to accuse them of conducting a witch-hunt.

The Accountability and Justice Law was the first of a series of so-called "benchmark" laws that Washington pressed Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to pass to foster reconciliation. Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam, had complained that the deBaathification programme amounted to collective punishment. [...]

The committee has received 14,000 applications from former Baathists asking for either reinstatement or for pensions, he said.

But Iraq's presidency council -- which comprises Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, and his two deputies -- and a separate Accountability and Justice Committee in parliament have ordered [the comittee's head] and his colleagues to freeze their work.

As was noted at the time the law was passed, there are certain provisions that could actually exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites:

Amid the confusion and conflicting signals from parliament, the biggest Sunni Arab bloc is already seeking amendments to the new law. It objects to a provision under which 7,000 former Baathists serving in the security services would be dismissed.

This de-Baathification hustle is just the most recent example of the game that Maliki and his political allies have been playing for quite a while - and one they'd likely be willing to play for, say, another 100 years or so if given the opportunity. It goes something like this: make a big public show of outreach and reconciliation, and after the spotlights fade, pull back on the follow through.

Actual, meaningful reconciliation remains an elusive prize, in part, because Maliki and his ilk have very little incentive to make concessions, compromises and accommodations to other disempowered groups while the US military is around to play enforcer/defender. We shield them from the facing the full brunt of their maximalist policies. In that sense, a vocal commitment to an indefinite, unconditional presence in Iraq (ala John McCain) allows Maliki and his allies to continue with business as usual.

These tendencies are reinforced by a certain dynamic: the Maliki government knows that US policymakers who favor a prolonged US occupation have few other viable allies in Iraq (in other words, we need them). Our only real leverage with Maliki is that his ruling bloc (portions of Dawa/ISCI/Kurds) needs us as well, but then, we won't be able to use that leverage until we show that we are actually willing to withdraw. Any such threats by a McCain administration will be familiarly hollow.

In a similar vein, Maliki knows perfectly well the value of PR to his US allies, and the media's willingness to go along with White House spin. So every now and again, Team Maliki will make a big show of progress by passing some "breakthrough" legislation, while behind the scenes they strip the law down to the forcefullness of a Sense of the Senate resolution.

It's unclear whether the Bush administration or the Maliki government is playing the other better, but in the end, we are all losing.

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