Iraq: Three years after the mother of all crisis


Dr Saeed Shehabi: As you Iraq is ablaze, according to Zaki Chehab and everybody knows that Iraq is in deep trouble. It has inherent problems and imported problems from outside. The presence of the Anglo-American forces is complicating the issues and creating more problems everyday. We do not who is causing the problems there but we are sure that as long as there is occupation there will always be troubles.

That is one thing. The other factor is that Iraq’s destiny is linked to its national unity. If the national unity evaporates then Iraq will be fragmented. It is in the interests of every Iraqi to be together, to co-exist, to tolerate each other and to talk to each other. They have been doing this for hundreds of years. It is only when there are outside influences that problems arise and amenities become  even more.

In our lifetime Iraq has always been a topical issue, an issue which is hot and trouble to everyone: trouble to itself, trouble to its neighbours, trouble to international community. At the same time we can’t escape from it being from that part of the world. Iraq is not a small country. It is potentially the strongest Arab country. Still its role within the Arab community is minimized, its role within the Islamic world is  marginal and on the international arena is has also been crushed as a major player.

Tonight we have chosen to speak about Iraq, three years after what we call the mother of all crises and the speaker is our friend Zaki Chehab.

Zaki Chehab: I would like to start  with what we have witnessed recently especially after the bombing of the holy shrine in Samarra. Many in Iraq and in the outside world thought that Iraq is really slipping into a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias. From the first minute I heard about the incident which was deplored by everyone I said Al Zarkawi must be behind it. He did  not announce his responsibility but I was straight forward about it. One thing which made me believe that he is  the one behind it was the fact that he is the one who can benefit from a sectarian war in Iraq.

Any dialogue between the Sunnis and the American forces which may lead to stability in Iraq will definitely expose Zarqawi. In Iraq his people are in their hundreds, not thousands and he is benefiting from the environment of hatred, deterioration of security, the mistakes committed by the American-led occupation in Iraq.

All these developments have helped him.  And in addition to this he was used by other elements in Iraq. It is true that there are extreme Sunni militant groups in Iraq. But  the ones who are managing him more than anyone else are the Baathists. No  one believes that Iraq a young Saudi. Yemeni, Jordanian or Palestinian is knowledgeable  enough in terms of technology or military experience to target an American plane of an American plane trying to land in Baghdad. If someone is shelling the Green Zone  it is only a senior Iraqi official who can know the location of the American embassy or the conference centre.

These Baathists and ex army personnel have interests in Iraq and they do not want to  get into a fact to face confrontation with the Americans. They are thinking that if now we are accused of killing the Americans we will have no future. That is why they don’t mind that Al Zarqawi.  And Zarqawi doesn’t mind either. It is publicity for him and his organization Al Qaeda. The others keep their place for themselves in the future in case there is some change in the policies and tactics adopted.

Will Iraq really slip into a sectarian war? I suspect this will not happen because if it was to happen it would have happened a long time ago. As you know, Sayed Baqir Al Hakim was a well respected figure but his death did not lead Iraq into a civil war. There was some kind of killing but there was enough wise religious leadership from both sects, both Sunni and Shia to  call on their supporters not to take any kind of action which would hurt the country.

Also last year there was a stampede in which more than 800 people were killed. So many incidents. The talk about a sectarian war  is not something new. Believe me the scale of killing in Iraq since the fall of the regime is still the same. I was in Baghdad from day one talking about sectarian cleansing. It is happening. If you visit  Kerbala you will see that thousands of people have been forced to leave their houses.  This is also happening in Anbar, Kirkuk many areas.

The same thing is happening in Baghdad itself. Where there are minorities they will be forced to leave. If you are a Shia living in a Sunni area or a Sunni leaving in a Shia area you will be forced to leave.

This was happening on a very large scale from day one but many of us opted  not to talk about it. Or we were ashamed not to talk about it and this was a big mistake because we have not really worked towards stopping it or preventing it from happening.

What led to this? I was surprised only three weeks ago the American ambassador in Baghdad accused Iraqi political leaders of only looked after their own interests and acting in a sectarian way. But the fact is the American  administration encouraged this sectarianism from day one even before the regime fell. I remember the  Iraqi opposition conference which took place here in London a year before the regime fell. And the American administration dealt with the political leaders on a sectarian basis: Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. That was the direction from day one.

It was only recently that the Americans realized they have taken the wrong steps for so many reasons. They were surprised at the scale of the success of the Shia-led coalition achieved in the elections.  If we look at it from a political point of view it is not in their interests to see this coalition leading Iraq. If it is in the American interest to have military bases in Iraq then this coalition will not allow this  as the bases would be used against  Iran.

If you go and visit a minister in Iraq not far from his office you will find offices for American and British advisers who are practically in charge.  I know some of them, they are my friends. And when I came to visit them they had to politely go and say that so and so is here to visit them and he is a friend so they would not question too much who has come to see the minister.

When you mention withdrawal they say they will withdraw the minute they feel Iraqis are capable of looking after the security of their country.

But how will Iraqis be able to look after the security of their country if they are not allowed to have proper equipment? They are not really in charge. Once I was taken to see the Minister of the Interior. He sent a police car to pick me up from the Green Zone. We were searched three times and they were high-rankinng police officers. They were sad. They said :"This is really happening in the Green Zone". But how do we feel as high-ranking Iraqi officers being stopped in the streets of Baghdad, being searched by American soldiers in front of our people. How will our people respect us? They were generals and they were very sad. This happened when I was with them. They had to be searched at three or four check points. They are not trusted. The Americans say bombs may have been planted in your car. So this is the police of the future.

How confident are the Iraqi police? The majority of the police who stand in the streets of Baghdad cover up their faces. They do not want to be recognised by the people in their neighbourhoods because they are scared for their lives. Most of them join the police because they want to get salaries.

In terms of security it was a big failure. There was a hurry to go into investment. But this cannot be done when there is no security. Just one example of how bad the security is. The road from the airport to the capital is about 20 minutes drive. Not a single day passes without this road being targeted. And many Iraqi travelers avoid traveling in the morning because they know from their own experience that bombs will be planted along the road during the night and it will take a couple of hours for them to be cleared. So the ones who cross the road in the morning know they will be targeted. So the regular travelers plan to leave in the afternoon. What about the ones who cannot afford to have the choice of traveling? 

So security is  a big failure. Not a single road between Baghdad and the rest of the country is secure. If you want to go from Baghdad to the south you have to go through Latifiyah. When you talk about security it is not all politicised. Gangs are everywhere. There are large numbers of Iraqis in Amman, Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. They have decided to leave the country for one single reason: they do not feel safe. If you have kids, if you are a successful professional, a doctor, an engineer or a lecturer you feel if they cannot kidnap you they will kidnap your kids. And you end of paying large sums of money.

Two hundred Iraqi university lecturers have been killed and 400 have been target. About 350 teachers have been kidnapped, killed or disappeared from the scene. The infrastructure is all a failure. Before the fall of the regime Iraqis used to get electricity  once every three hours. Now it is every six hours, they get in for one hour. In terms of roads, there used to be holes in the road but they are bigger and bigger now. Water, the same thing. The Iraqis used to drink the water. Now they can’t drink it because it is not safe for them to drink.

What about oil?  Last November I traveled to Iraq via Turkey. Believe me not less than 15,000 trucks were bringing oil to Iraq. Kirkuk is know to everyone as a town which is sleeping on a sea of oil but people have to queue to get oil for their cars. And in Baghdad it was like a day out for families. You have to queue. You bring your family with you to spend time with them and to bring you food and keep you company till you get your oil.

That is Iraq. I am not exaggerating. The Iraqis have the largest oil reserve in the world. Iraq is the largest, not the second, not the third but Iraqis have to queue to fill their cars for two and three days. They take all the risks, you know about it. So the situation is very sad and a failure.

Will  the Iraqis come through this, despite this gloomy picture will they get united? I have hope and I am trying to say ‘yes’. I believe till today that there are a large number of wise religious and political leaders in Iraq who are willing to live together. I myself traveled in Anbar Province and in Mosul. I came across many Sunnis who do not mind seeing a Shia or a Kurd leading the country. Some of them are angry and anti-American. But when you have a discussion with them they are still willing to see the right person in charge.  This is also the case for the Shia.

In terms of seeing Iraq divided, I suspect that none of the parties in Iraq want this. The Kurds know that the dream of having an independent state is not there. I myself know Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani for nearly two years. I talk to them. They know this dream will never be achieved and the only choice left for them is to live with other Iraqis. Some might say yes, they have their own areas away from the troubles, they are trying to enjoy life.

The Shia have no interest in having the south for themselves and not being on good terms with the others. It is in their interest to rule the whole country not just the south. They different parties in Iraq have an interest in living together and adjusting to make concessions. It might be that because the Americans lacked the knowledge and the experience to deal with things. After the January elections the Americans realised that they were expecting more from the Shia. They turned to the Sunnis with promises, trying to lure them. Lets work with you, we may achieve.

This is the wrong attitude. If you want to save Iraqi lives and American lives is to try to help Iraqis themselves to work together. Not trying to lure this one against the other. The more we delay this process the more blood we are going to see.

It is in the interests of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds to try and adjust, to try to calm the fears of every group. No one will lose as a result. I am still hopeful that this going to happen but the most important thing is that how the American-led occupation handles the situation. There is no point trying to come closer to the Sunnis and make peace with the Sunni insurgents and then seeing the trouble start in the south. You have done nothing.

It all depends how the political process and the negotiations are going to happen. One day we will see the Americans saying this is democracy in Iraq.  But President  Bush sent a letter to Sayed Baqir Al Hakim that the American administration does not like to see Al Jafferi in charge. So what kind of  democarcy is this? They are trying to design democracy to fit their interests. But the long term interest for Iraqis and the outside world for all of us is to see Iraqis themselves feel relaxed and willing to approach a solution, their own solution to their own problems.

The election in Iraq was a great experience. Iraqis for a long time were waiting for it. There were mistakes. No one is saying it was a perfect experience but it was a good experience.  In one year they went three times to the voting centres: the January election in 2005, the referendum and the last January election. And the more the Iraqis get trained, the more they see the actions of their politicians the better they will be at chosing the ones to represent them.

At some stage we will have seen politicians who have lifed in exile and the Americans helped them, pushed them by all means.

It didn’t work. I will just give an example of how at some stage the Americans tried to lure Ahmed Chelabi and take him away from the alliance. They tried to finance Ayad Allawi and forced him to take  Pachachi on board. So they are trying to bring these politicians who have always been known to all of us as being on very good terms with the American administration if not more than that. And what was the result? I was in Iraq just after the elections. Pachachi failed to secure one single seat for himself. In the last election the Americans forced Ayad Allawi to have him on board and to be number two on the list. This upset some of Allawi’s candidates and they decided to resign as a result of the demand. What was the result?  And what about Ahmed Chelabi? He failed to secure one single seat for himself. Allawi had 40 – 45 seats in parliament and he only managed to get 20 – 25. So the American hopes were thwarted. They hoped that Allawi, Pachachi, Chelabi and the Kurds could form a bloc which will chose the government. It didn’t work like this. This is why they were shocked and they tried to change their policies.

Now what is happening is that they are trying to correct their mistakes. But they are going the wrong way about it. And we should be clear about this and make our voice louder. The more you ignore what the Iraqis want, the longer you prolong the suffering.

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