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Time Ripe for Iraqi Reconciliation?

By Ella Rolfe

The campaign season for Iraq’s parliamentary elections was heavy with anti-Baathist sentiment, highlighting the collective failure of the country’s politicians to work towards national reconciliation. But the post-election period might offer a new opportunity to soothe the anger and divisions that have re-emerged. 

During campaigning, a wave of anti-Baathist feeling was aimed at winning votes, especially by Shia-led coalitions - which publicly embraced a government de-Baathification commission’s decision to ban 145 candidates with alleged Baathist ties from standing in the elections.

Tasked with rooting out Baathism in Iraq, the controversial Accountability and Justice Commission is now reportedly weighing whether to disqualify more candidates from the winning Iraqiya list which includes many Sunni Arab leaders.

This is will have a polarising effect, with Sunnis feeling targeted since they are often associated with the Baath party. In fact, most Baath party members (95 per cent according to a 2003 United States estimate) were obliged by their employers to join.

The Baathist past has become so politicised that the need for accountability, truth and reconciliation has been forgotten.

Most senior Baathists were simply dismissed from their jobs by the invading Coalition forces in 2003; very few were tried. Because there has not been formal justice process for former Baathist leaders, there has been no process of coming to terms with the abuses of the era. The whole issue is, seven years on, still raw and open to exploitation.

To mitigate this, Iraqi leaders could abandon their populist fervour and seek to reintegrate low-level former Baath party members, not suspected of crimes, via a process of truth and reconciliation.

The idea for such a process has been mooted before. The Bush administration decided a week before the 2003 invasion to hold a truth and reconciliation commission, according to American journalist Fred Kaplan in a 2004 report for Slate magazine. But the plan was later dropped in the post-invasion chaos.

In 2006, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a national reconciliation programme, including amnesty for insurgents who had not targeted civilians and a reversal of a law prohibiting Baathists from low-level public positions.

But the main political players were not on board, according to Erik Gustafson, director of the Iraq-based Human Rights NGO Project for DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute. Gustafson argues that a lack of political will prevented the programme from being implemented.

The plan need not fail again. Current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, although one of many Kurds who suffered under the Baathist regime, has opposed wholesale de-Baathification and may favour a more conciliatory approach. He may be replaced as president, but he will retain significant influence.

And his niece Ala Talabani, one of Iraq’s most prominent female politicians, says the issue received support from some parliamentarians, both recently and during the 2008 debate on the Accountability and Justice Act, which set up the controversial commission of the same name.

Some argue that Iraq may not be ready to address its painful history, and that re-opening old wounds could ignite sectarianism in the current fragile political climate.

However, new post-election circumstances might be just the time to resurrect the idea of truth and reconciliation.

Both frontrunners for prime minister, the current incumbent Maliki and Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi, performed well at the polls and so would have a significant mandate to push through a national reconciliation process.

It would of course be difficult; but problems could be overcome.

The Accountability and Justice Law provides the framework for a reconciliation process. But the commission which applies the law is mistrusted, especially by Sunni Arabs, and has been accused of political bias and a lack of transparency.

The commission, though, is an interim body, formed because all the candidates suggested by Maliki for a permanent commission were rejected by parliament.

With the political force of a strong prime minister, and members trusted to be impartial and truly independent, a new commission could prove effective.

So political circumstances might now be ripe. In addition, Iraqi culture places high value on narrative and testimony, according to Miranda Sissons of the US-based International Center for Transitional Justice. She says that “the idea of standing up and witnessing is incredibly appealing” to Iraqis.

But this must be a truly national process, with specific reconciliation activities integrated in a wider strategy to combat the social segregation that is still the norm between people from different areas and ethnic groups in Iraq. Similarly, any commission should encompass former Sunni and Shia insurgents as well as former Baathists.

As Gustafson says, there is “a lot of ground to be travelled” to make a national reconciliation process successful. But with post-election political changes, the Iraqi government could take the opportunity to draw a line under the polarising approaches of the post-Saddam Iraqi era with a real process of healing.

Ella Rolfe is IWPR Iraq’s deputy head of programmes.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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