PM plays the anti-Baath card as poll approaches

Talk of former Baathists infiltrating next Sunday's election masks the more complex dilemmas facing Iraq, Patrick Cockburn writes

With a week to go until Iraq's legislative election, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denied yesterday that the decision to purge hundreds of candidates from the election was aimed at the minority Sunni population, despite evidence that the witch hunt is being extended.

"It's not true that it targeted Sunnis," Mr Maliki said in Baghdad. "The decision will not at all affect the Sunni turnout for the election. The decision was made because some of those were blatantly propagating Baath Party ideas." He said that most of those banned were Shia. However, all the important politicians among those blacklisted are Sunni.

Mr Maliki's claim that he is only going after former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party underlines the extent to which the purge has come to dominate the election, to be held on 7 March. The banning of some 500 candidates was unexpectedly announced at the start of the year. In the last few days it has been widened to include several hundred security and army officers, and about 1,000 provincial officials, according to sources in the Iraqi capital. Despite the government's notorious failings, posters and banners all over Baghdad – now largely a Shia city – call for "No return for the Baathist criminals" and "Revenge on the Baathists who oppressed you". There are only a few posters promising to do something about unemployment, electricity and services.

Newspapers, television and radio have been filled with coverage of the machinations of Iraq's old ruling party. In Shia provinces in the south of Iraq there have been demonstrations by thousands of protesters against Baathist infiltration. The Shia political parties, including those running the government, have been trying to outdo each other in the toughness of their demands for a clampdown.

The origin of what one commentator has called "the Baathists-under-the-bed" furore lies as much in the political divisions within Iraq's Shia majority as it does in any real fear of a return of supporters of Saddam Hussein. Whatever happens, Iraq is likely to go on being ruled by a Shia-Kurdish coalition representing 80 per cent of the population.

The purge was kicked off in January when the Justice and Accountability Commission, a shadowy body under the influence of the Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi, said that 500 candidates, since reduced to 145, could not stand because of their Baathist associations. An uproar followed. The US Vice President, Joe Biden, flew to Baghdad to mediate. But in the paranoid political atmosphere of Iraq, where calm is only slowly returning after the sectarian massacres of 2006-07, the allegations struck a nerve.

The political aim of the purge is probably to weaken the secular nationalist coalition called Iraqiya, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The most prominent politician to be banned is Saleh al-Mutlaq. He leads the National Dialogue Front, which is the second largest Sunni faction in parliament, and is allied to Mr Allawi. Mr Mutlaq at first said his party would boycott the election but last week reversed this decision, knowing that the Sunni boycott of the poll in 2005 was disastrous. The sharpening of sectarian differences may also have been calculated to bring out the Shia vote for the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the coalition of Shia religious parties and opponents of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Its two main components are former enemies, both Islamic Shia parties: The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. ISCI and the Sadrists have lost much of their former popularity but need to combine to maximise their support and number of seats in parliament. Initially the aim was for the INA to recreate the Shia coalition which swept to victory in 2005, but Mr Maliki refused to join unless he could remain Prime Minister.

Mr Maliki has lost many of his former allies, but his State of Law list is strong because he himself has significant popular support and, above all, controls the machinery of government. The state is just as important in Iraq today as it was under Saddam Hussein. The economy is completely dependent on oil revenues, which totalled $4.4bn (£2.9bn) in January.

This in turn means that Mr Maliki and his small Dawa party control a great network of patronage. Even the humblest teacher's job in Iraq requires a letter of recommendation from a political party which has a share in power. Half of the 29 million Iraqis depend on the state food ration to feed themselves. Mr Maliki's support depends also on the decline in violence since 2007– when 3,000 bodies were being found every month in greater Baghdad. In 2008 he faced down the Mehdi Army militia in Baghdad and Basra and the number of killings has fallen to some hundreds a month. But the Prime Minister's claim to have made Iraq a safe place are exaggerated – as savagely demonstrated by a series of truck bombings in Baghdad since last summer. These gave substance to the claim that former Baathist security officers and al-Qa'ida operatives were cooperating in these well-planned attacks.

The purge of Baathists has presented Mr Maliki with a dilemma. His own Dawa party was founded as a religious Shia party, but in the last provincial election in January 2009 it dropped its sectarian slogans and presented itself as a tough-minded nationalist party. This was a popular platform, but the government had no choice but to join the anti-Baathist campaign to keep its Shia support. As a sop to the Sunnis, the government suddenly announced last week it would rehire 20,000 officers from Saddam Hussein's era; these will be put on the payroll immediately, regardless of their military usefulness.

The decision to pay so many officers explains one of the reasons why reconstruction in Iraq has been so slow. The government spends most of its oil revenues on paying a very large army and a bloated and incompetent bureaucracy. When oil prices were at their height in 2008, the pay of teachers and many other professionals paid by the state was increased. Too little money is left for investment in providing electricity, water and sewage disposal. Control of jobs is one of the reasons why political competition to control the government is so intense in Iraq.

As a result of the lack of services and continuing violence, few of the 2 million Iraqi refugees who fled abroad have returned home. For instance, healthcare is poor because 8,000 out of 15,000 Iraqi doctors fled abroad in 2003-08, according to Health Ministry figures. The government's method of luring them back explains a lot about present-day Iraq: it is to pay them more and give them better car and housing allowances and, also to give them all gun licences so that they can defend themselves.

"So I'm supposed to treat people with a stethoscope in one pocket and a pistol in the other," said one doctor in disgust. So far, some 1,500 doctors have returned, but Iraqis say that these are mostly those who are under-qualified and the essential specialists are not returning.

Security is much better than it was three years ago, but the improvement is only by Baghdad standards. Al-Qa'ida notoriously retains the ability to launch devastating attacks. But the level of fear in Iraq is also determined by crime purely for profit – such as the kidnapping of children, which is once again on the rise. Some 249 kidnaps were reported last year, according to the Interior Ministry, but the great majority of abductions are never reported because the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims if the police are told.

It is unlikely that Iraq will revert to sectarian civil war; the Shia effectively beat the Sunni in 2006-07. Though there are great differences between Arabs and Kurds over oil and territory, both would have a lot to lose if there was real fighting. The American military withdrawal is likely to continue because President Obama wants combat troops out by August (nor was the presence of US troops enough to avert civil war in the past).

Sectarianism never came close to dying away over the last couple of years. But after playing the anti-Baathist card so vigorously during the election campaign, the Shia parties may have difficulty getting the sectarian genie back in the bottle, particularly if there are many more bombs in Baghdad.

However, no single coalition is likely to win a majority in Sunday's election, and this will compel the parties now at each other's throats to negotiate afterwards on how power is to be distributed in Iraq.

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