The crimes of the previous regime should be investigated. But mere affiliation with the Baathist party does not constitute a crime.
Another small step towards stability in Iraq
Iraq's tenuous hold on participatory politics appeared to weaken of late. After more than 450 candidates were banned from contesting next month's elections, leading Sunni politicians were bluntly warning of a return to civil war. That catastrophe has for the moment been averted. An Iraqi appeals court overturned the blacklist on Wednesday, and rightly so, but added a caveat that elected officials would not be able to take office until they had been investigated further.
While both Sunni and Shia politicians were on the list, the majority were Sunni; the ban was motivated by sectarian interests more than any other consideration. By sidelining prominent Sunni leaders, the commission that compiled the blacklist set the stage for an inherently unfair election. The head of the commission, Ali al Lami, is also running as a candidate for the Iraqi National Alliance, a bloc of Shiite religious parties. The conflict of interest was obvious.
Mr al Lami immediately blamed US pressure for the court's decision. The US vice president Joe Biden visited Baghdad last month, trying to mend sectarian divisions after the ban - an interesting example of US diplomacy at work as its military presence in Iraq is drawn down. But with or without Mr Biden's visit, there were sound legal reasons to overturn the blacklist. The ban's proponents, which included members of the president Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, argued that it was necessary to prevent former members of Saddam Hussein's regime from gaining power. But the premise that electoral victories would constitute a Baathist putsch is insupportable. The effort was also a tacit admission that some of the Shiite sectarian parties are nervous about their appeal at the ballot box.
The court found that there was not enough evidence for the blacklisted candidates to be disqualified for past membership in the Baathist party. But further investigation was promised after the election and some say that the conflict has only been pushed further down the road. Yes, the crimes of the previous regime should be investigated. But mere affiliation with the Baathist party does not constitute a crime. The de-Baathification policy and disbanding of the former national army were grievous errors made immediately after the 2003 invasion. A similar effort today might suffocate an Iraqi democracy still in its infancy.
If it is mostly fair, the March election will be a major opportunity for Iraq to move forward and away from the violence that still troubles the country. It is worth noting that not too long ago a credible appeals court, much less one that overturns entrenched sectarian interests, would have been an impossibility in Iraq. There are still serious flaws in the country's political institutions - not least the constitutional ambiguity that allowed the blacklist to be established in the first place. But each decision that rejects purely sectarian politics is a step towards a more stable Iraq.