THE decision announced last week by Iraq's electoral commission to keep hundreds of candidates off the ballot for the March 7 elections represents a bad turn for prospects for democracy and peace there. It also constitutes an immediate setback and a slap in the face for the United States.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the establishment of democracy in place of the dictatorship of the late President Saddam Hussein was a stated, although unrealistic, U.S. goal.
It was even suggested by the administration of President George W. Bush that the democracy America would establish in Iraq could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East. That pretense would be laughable even if government in that region were not in general patently unrepresentative, with all the disadvantages that go with that approach to governance.
In that context, it is interesting to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Qatar, a monarchy and U.S. ally, calling for measures against Iran because she says it is moving toward becoming a military dictatorship.
Vice President Joe Biden visited Iraq recently to try to prevent the occupation government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from keeping many of its opponents, mainly Sunni although including some Shiites like Mr. Maliki as well, out of the elections.
Whatever arguments Mr. Biden used, the Maliki government felt free to ignore them.
On the one hand, the occupation government's snub of U.S. pleas to open up the elections is evidence of some independence on its part, even if it is in defense of an unhelpful approach.
On the other — pointing toward a more-likely outcome — excluding Sunni and nonsectarian candidates from the electoral process leaves the field clear to Mr. Maliki and the Shiite Iraqi National Congress of former U.S. favorite Ahmed Chalabi. That would invite a Sunni boycott, as occurred in 2005, and likely subsequent civil disorder.
The key for the United States is not to allow electoral stunts by the Maliki government, or any subsequent havoc they may provoke, to delay U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
From March 7 to Aug. 30, the U.S. troop level in Iraq is set to drop from 120,000 to 50,000. Nothing that the Iraqis do should stop that process.