Friday, February 26, 2010

Addressing the Baathist Legacy in Iraq

Ella Rolfe

On Friday 29 January, the UK enquiry into the 2003 Iraq war heated up as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned. For several weeks the British media had been speculating on what might be revealed in the session. In Iraq, in contrast, there has been no media coverage of the enquiry. No one seemed to care with the outcome of the process will have no impact in the occupied nation itself.

However, there is a story here. Iraq’s preparations for the March 7 election have already been marred by political controversy - and part of this can be traced back to the attitudes underpinning the western intervention. The roots of the current anti-Baathist fever among Iraq’s politicians can be seen in the way Blair framed his evidence.
During over five hours of questioning, there was very little mention of any aspect Iraqi figure other than former dictator Saddam Hussein himself.

The coalition seems to have focused almost entirely on getting rid of the figurehead, with little attention paid to other leaders in Saddam’s Baathist party. As Blair told the enquiry, “the only commitment I gave [then-US president George Bush] was to deal with Saddam.” This narrow focus, neglected Iraq’s need to deal effectively with the wider Baathist leadership. This is reflected in the failure of today’s politics to move on.

Saddam was, of course, executed along with three key associates in 2006. But only a handful of the other 50,000 Baathists that the Bush administration estimated would not be suitable for integration into the post-Saddam regime have been tried – most simply dismissed from their posts and are still free. No one has been called to account for most of the crimes committed under Saddam.

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.

And with the election coming, this is just what is happening. This was illustrated recently by a ban on 511 candidates who were allegedly former Baath party members, by Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission. The commission presented no evidence of any crimes committed by these candidates. Most Baath party members (95% according to a US estimate in 2003) were obliged by their government jobs to join; yet no distinction is begin made in the widespread anti-Baath rhetoric now prevalent among all Iraq’s major political parties.
Anti-Baathism is being used as a tool to win votes, especially by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki who has publicly embraced the bans. This is a polarizing trend, with Sunnis feeling targeted since they are often associated with the Baath party. The Baathist past has become so politicized that the need for accountability, truth and reconciliation has been forgotten.

The impact of this on Iraq ripped to the surface most recently on January 25, when the first of several bomb attacks hit Baghdad on the same day as the execution of ‘Chemical Ali’, or Ali Hassan Al-Majid, a close associate of Saddam’s who had been convicted of involvement in the mass killings of the 1980s Anfal campaign. Most commentators have assumed that the attacks were carried out by supporters of Majid – Baathist leaders persist, even in death, to cause destruction in Iraq.

A truth and reconciliation commission could help to soothe the anger that is being so dangerously manifested. The US administration drew up plans for such a commission in 2003, but the plan was quietly abandoned. Again in 2006, Prime Minister Maliki announced a national reconciliation program, including an amnesty for insurgents who had not targeted civilians and a reversal of a law prohibiting Baathists from low level public positions. But public distrust and a lack of political will prevented the plan from becoming reality.

The post election period might be the time to resurrect the idea. Unlike the trial of Saddam, an Iraqi truth and reconciliation commission would need to be based on testament by both perpetrators and victims – on witnessing and accountability. A 2007 survey found that 95% of Sunnis and 38% of Shias in Iraq thought Saddam’s execution would not help reconciliation in the country – the quick justice of the executioner is not enough to make up for decades of fear.
A commission would also need to be widely trusted as impartial. The Accountability and Justice Commission, a closed body with no public participation, has been accused of being politically influenced, and may have contributed to recrimination and polarization rather than mitigating them.

Finally, a commission should take into account both pre- and post-2003 abuses - for instance the 2006 bombing of the Al Ashariya mosque in Samarra, an important Shia site - to avoid becoming yet another forum for anti-Baath cheap talk.

The plan need not fail again. President Jalal Talabani, although one of many Kurds who suffered at the hands of the Baathists, has opposed wholesale de-Baathification and may well favour a more conciliatory approach. And Iraqi culture places high value on narrative and testimony – according to Miranda Sissons of the US-based International Center for Transitional Justice, “the idea of standing up and witnessing is incredibly appealing” to Iraqis.

In his evidence to the Iraq War Enquiry, Tony Blair presented the 2003 invasion as an opportunity to remove an old foe which was grasped with both hands. After the upcoming election, the Iraqi government should take the opportunity to draw a line under that approach and begin a real process of healing. An Iraqi truth and reconciliation commission would be of great help in letting Iraq finally move on.