x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Bombings rock Baghdad in the run-up to elections

Within hours of a visit by the US vice president Joe Biden, Baghdad was struck by multiple bombings in the latest major attacks as parliamentary elections approach. The attacks on Monday in which at least 36 people were killed and 71 were wounded, targeted the Ishtar Sheraton, Babylon and al-Hamra hotels, popular with both visiting businessmen and, in the case of the Sheraton and al-Hamra, journalists.

Within hours of a visit by the US vice president Joe Biden, Baghdad was struck by multiple bombings in the latest major attacks as parliamentary elections approach. Mr Biden, The National reported on Sunday: "met Iraqi leaders yesterday amid a simmering political crisis that threatens to derail March's election and that could even delay plans for a complete withdrawal of United States troops by the end of next year. "Officially, the visit - his third to Baghdad since being encharged with overseeing an orderly US pull-out - was not specifically related to the deepening political row that erupted after more than 500 candidates were barred from standing for parliament. In reality, however, there is little doubt Mr Biden's trip was designed to push Iraq's feuding political groups into finding a speedy resolution to a dangerous impasse." The attacks on Monday in which at least 36 people were killed and 71 were wounded, targeted the Ishtar Sheraton, Babylon and al-Hamra hotels, popular with both visiting businessmen and, in the case of the Sheraton and al-Hamra, journalists, The Wall Street Journal said. "The attacks have shaken Iraq's security services and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had made security improvements a centerpiece of his campaign for a slate of candidates he leads, seeking seats in parliament. The elections have been blighted by controversy. First, a protracted squabble in parliament about the details of an election law delayed the voting from January to March. Then, a government committee announced this month the disqualification of more than 500 candidates, accusing them of connections to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The candidate purge triggered accusations from Sunni politicians that Mr Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and other Shiite parties were attempting to disqualify heavyweight competitors of Mr Maliki's slate. "The government has denied the allegations, and the committee has said it was only following the law in banning the candidates. Amid the outcry over the disqualifications, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has said he would ask the country's judiciary to verify the authority of the panel." Saif Abdul-Rahman, former chief of staff for the Iraqi ministry of industry, provided this comment on the current political situation in Iraq: "The issue of candidates being excluded from election roles in Iraq has captured the Iraqi political scene for the last week or so. It has also captivated administration folks here in Washington, who by allowing Vice President Biden to visit Iraq are throwing their weight in on the subject. VP Biden made positive public statements by saying that the Iraqis will handle the issue. Privately, VP Biden should keep to the same message. There needs to be a calculation made by the US in weighing whether or not it is in the interests of the United States to intervene. I would argue in this particular situation the short-term and long-term costs would outweigh any gains made by any US involvement in this issue. "My argument is based on the supposition that this issue will not break the political process nor irreparably damage it. The candidates that have been excluded don't necessarily have a chance at winning a seat in an election. Some may try to argue that this would disenfranchise the Sunnis and may lead to a boycott, something I seriously doubt. The Sunnis learned their lesson from the 2005 boycott and will not repeat that mistake again because of the costs they paid in doing so. Today, there is not one credible call for a boycott of the elections, nor will there be because it just will not work; even if candidates were excluded the major parties are still there and people would still vote for them undermining the whole idea of a boycott." In Asia Times, Sami Moubayed wrote: "Disqualified Sunni politicians are frantically looking for regional allies to back their claims, but it might be advisable for them look within Iraq for potential Shiite allies who share a desire to bring down Maliki. Potential allies are two hopefuls for the premiership: vice president and head of the SIIC, Adel Abdul Mehdi, and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mehdi has had his eyes set on the premiership since 2006, but was famously defeated by a single vote within the UIA. "Jaafari was ejected from power that same year, accused by many of being responsible for the sectarian unrest after the February 2006 bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in the mixed town of Samarrah. Both are heavyweights within the Shiite community; the powerful business elites back Mehdi while Jaafari is supported by influential clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "Although both men are not exactly enthusiasts of bringing Sunnis back into the top levels of power, they nevertheless have tried at different intervals since 2005 to accommodate Sunnis, with the common target of bringing down the prime minister. Both men have realized that pushing Sunnis into the wilderness in 2003 was a bad idea, given that Iraq cannot be ruled solely by Shiite politicians. Their claim is supported by another Shiite heavyweight, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a member of the Iraqi National Alliance that includes the SIIC and Jaafari. "If these three statesmen, Mehdi, Muqtada and Jaafari, come out to challenge the disqualifications - regardless of whether or not they believe in them - then it would be very difficult for the Accountability and Justice Committee to push ahead with the bans." Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reported on Monday: "Iraq has reinstated 59 election candidates among more than 500 who had been blacklisted because of their alleged links to executed dictator Saddam Hussein, an official said on Monday. Ali al-Allami, a senior official from an integrity and accountability committee, said 150 people had appealed for their names to be removed from the controversial list of candidates excluded from the March 7 poll .... " 'After we got new information, we decided to accept the requests of 59 candidates,' Allami told AFP, referring to errors in applicants' names, dates of birth or other personal details that have since been corrected. " 'We received a total of 150 requests,' he added, without specifying the status of the 91 appeals that remain active. "According to Allami, 458 people are currently barred from contesting the election."

pwoodward@thenational.ae