Over the past year, there were grounds to believe that Iraq's post-war wounds were healing and that the primary challenge had become one of state building. Despite a spate of high-profile attacks in Baghdad and lower-level ones elsewhere, violence was down. Politics took centre stage. The outcome of the January 2009 provincial elections was a setback to the more openly sectarian parties and brought a change in local government. Most significantly, perhaps, those elections marked the Sunni Arabs' unambiguous acceptance of and entry into the political and institutional arena that they had once massively rejected and violently resisted.
But simmering conflicts were not long to come to a boil. Negotiations over an electoral law in the second half of the year took far longer than anticipated, forcing a five-week election delay. The perennially difficult question of Kirkuk's administrative status, as well as Sunni Arab concerns that refugees would not be fully represented, further stood in the way. These finally were overcome with the help of external pressure and mediation but neither they – nor the underlying ethnic and confessional fault line they reflected – are close to genuine resolution.
The mid-January announcement by the Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) that it would disqualify 511 candidates for alleged ties to the banned Baath party was the most disturbing. The decision was blindly adopted by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC); Prime Minister Maliki's government proceeded to embrace it and then pressured the appeal panel to perform a hasty and cursory review. Most appeals were denied. The episode caused havoc, raising questions about the AJC's legal standing, the judiciary's credibility, the electoral commission's legitimacy and ability to fairly administer the polls, and thus the election's integrity as a whole – not least because the AJC's leaders themselves are parliamentary candidates. A naked power play with sectarian overtones in that its most prominent victims are Sunni Arabs, it also reopened old wounds and cast a troubling light on Maliki, who only a year ago had won votes by eschewing sectarian rhetoric and has pledged to stitch together a broad non-sectarian electoral alliance.
Thankfully, there is little talk of boycott, as the spectre of 2005 – when Sunni Arabs shunned the polls and thus voluntarily disenfranchised themselves – looms heavy. That said, in the absence of an impartial internal monitor, the international community – primarily the U.S., EU and UN – now has an even greater responsibility to ensure that these flawed elections are damaged no further and to clearly define the requirements for them to be considered legitimate. Iraqi and international observers should be able to deploy freely to all polling stations and monitor both the vote and vote count. They should, in particular, observe the conduct of institutions and agencies whose impartial role will be critical in ensuring free and fair elections: the Supreme Court and IHEC, as well as the military and police. Blatant interference or massive fraud should be seen and stated as red lines that will force a review of how the international community views a future government.
That leaves what happens after the elections, assuming they pass this threshold. The question then will be whether the incoming government is able and willing to address the country's numerous political deficiencies, from sectarianism to politicised institutions and much in between. Serious work toward national reconciliation is long overdue. This time, forming a coalition government and holding it up as an example of national unity will not suffice. There will have to be meaningful progress on opening up political space, increasing cross-sectarian participation and improving transparency and accountability.
Reform of de-Baathification should be a priority, at least to set clear criteria and procedures embedded in law; the process should also be given a time horizon of a maximum of two years, at which point all remaining files should be closed and the effort terminated. In this endeavour, it will remain critical for members of the international community to stay actively engaged and bolster a still-weak Iraqi state by offering their Iraqi partners full technical, financial and diplomatic assistance and support economic reconstruction. U.S. troops may be on their way out, but it is too soon to abandon Iraq to the vagaries of internal conflicts and regional rivalries.
To the Government of Iraq:
1. Ensure free and fair elections by:
a) implementing the important code of conduct that the main coalitions signed on 17 February;
b) instructing security forces to provide free and secure access to polling stations;
c) reinstating, to the extent possible, candidates disqualified on the ground of alleged ties to the banned Baath party; and
d) refraining from interference in the work of the Independent High Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court and protecting these institutions from interference by others.
2. Launch a serious effort once a new government is formed to open up political space, increase cross-sectarian participation, improve transparency and accountability in decision making and strengthen, and encourage the political independence of, the judiciary and independent commissions.
3. Reform the Accountability and Justice Commission as a matter of priority by setting clear criteria and procedures embedded in law, and providing de-Baathification with a time horizon of a maximum of two years, at which point all remaining files should be closed and the effort terminated.
To Members of the International Community (notably the UN, EU and U.S.):
4. Play an assertive role in ensuring the elections are free, fair, transparent and inclusive.
5. Define clearly and publicly what constitute red lines that, if crossed, would discredit the elections, notably:
a) discouraging voters from reaching polling stations for lack of security;
b) obstructing their access to certain polling stations;
c) allowing non-registered voters to vote or registered voters to vote more than once; and
d) tampering with ballots, ballot boxes or vote count.
6. Encourage the parties' compliance with the code of conduct signed on 17 February.
7. Encourage the independence of the institutions and agencies involved in the electoral process, notably the Supreme Court and IHEC, as well as the military and police.
8. Monitor both the vote and vote count rigorously through the free and wide deployment of Iraqi and international observers to polling stations and both regional and central counting centres.
9. Speak out strongly against deliberate acts of fraud and manipulation.
10. Encourage political and institutional reform following the elections, especially of the Accountability and Justice Commission, and push for political independence of the judiciary and independent commissions.
11. Develop a stance that, if the above-mentioned red lines are crossed and election results are not broadly accepted by the public, would make diplomatic, military and development aid dependent on commitment to thorough institutional reform.
Baghdad/Washington/Brussels, 25 February 2010