Obama administration must intervene in Iraqi election crisis

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

IRAQ'S MARCH toward a crucial national election has had the feel of a cheap carnival ride, with sickening plunges and barely averted derailments at every turn. Now a new twist poses the most serious threat yet to the prospect of a free and fair election -- and a successful wind-down of the U.S. mission. Seemingly out of nowhere last week an obscure and opaque commission ruled that more than 500 candidates would be disqualified from the parliamentary vote -- in most cases on the grounds that they once supported the Baath party of Saddam Hussein.

Among those proscribed are top Sunni leaders, including the serving defense minister and the head of a major political bloc. If the bans stand, an election that looked as though it would be one of the most free in the history of the Arab world would be badly degraded. At worst, the sectarian warfare that nearly tore Iraq apart could reignite.

There's not much clarity about who is behind the nasty maneuver -- but one protagonist appears to be Ahmed Chalabi, the notorious former exile leader and master of political manipulation. Now regarded as an Iranian agent by most U.S. officials, Mr. Chalabi, along with his associates, served Tehran's interests as well as his own by banning the Sunni leaders. Several of those blacklisted had recently joined cross-sectarian secular alliances that are challenging the Shiite coalition of which Mr. Chalabi is a part, as well as the list headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Over the weekend, Mr. Maliki appeared to endorse the disqualifications -- a step that would nullify his previous support for progressive electoral reforms.

Surprised by the sudden decision, U.S. and U.N. officials have been trying to moderate it. Vice President Biden, who used his influence to good effect during previous disputes over the elections, has been working the phones again. An appeals procedure would allow disqualified candidates to make their cases before a panel of judges, but that process could easily become bogged down and fail to help many candidates before the scheduled March 7 vote. Though pressed by crises in Haiti and elsewhere, it is essential that the Obama administration use all the leverage at its disposal to press for a compromise in the coming days that would put legitimate Sunni leaders back on the ballot. Not just Iraq's future but also President Obama's own commitment to a "responsible" end to the war is at stake.

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