” … This is the most important thing I have ever done. Anybody who is against this war, does not understand. I really didn’t. The man (Saddam) was a monster who made millions of people suffer, for decades….
“You can’t imagine the joy and happiness of the people! They say, ‘Thank you for our freedom!’ The first two days, they were afraid. Every day more people have come out.
They are so humble, so thankful…. They do not know how to thank, but they show us such kindness and joy. When we come into a village, they throw flowers and candies at us.
“The longer we stay, the more they want us not to leave, but of course we must push on….” A Marine calling home as U.S. troops pushed north.
Will the U.S.-led liberation mean real change for Iraqis? Will today’s pride in freeing 25 million souls be justified, long term? In short, will freedom truly ring in a Saddam-free Iraq? The challenge is deceptively clear; its achievement, extremely difficult. Coalition of the willing members can concur with the following basic concepts:
Iraqis need to be given every chance to create a democracy, free from foreign domination. Foreign powers, nevertheless, must make every effort to provide emergency life sustaining supplies, and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Iraq’s oil wealth needs to be for the benefit of the population. There must be a vigorous private sector. Government should preferably continue Iraq’s secular heritage.
All of that said and agreed, however, the devil is well and truly in the details. Take oil.
How will repair and modernization of the existing wells and distribution system be financed? How will ownership be fairly apportioned among the population? As one observer has remarked, Iraq stands as a developing country today, but one with enormous opportunity actually to develop.
JOINT OIL DEVELOPMENT The generally accepted solution is that there should be a government-owned petroleum entity that operates roughly on the model of Saudi ARAMCO or Venezuela’s PEDEVESA. The domestic concern coordinates and audits all maintenance, exploration, production, refining, and distribution, with virtually all these functions performed under contract by private companies.
Iraq thus reaps the economic benefits of Iraq’s petroleum riches — particularly, thousands of jobs and the profits — but leaves actual performance — and financing — to private sector foreign companies, who are invited to bid purely on technical and financial bases.
Fortunately, Iraq has a host of well-trained professional cadres, with strong technical training and experience. The country’s 22 universities maintained high standards throughout the otherwise disastrous Saddam era, particularly in scientific and engineering disciplines, with a significant number of students also studying and working abroad as part of their professional development.
FOREIGN FINANCE & TECHNOLOGY ESSENTIAL Major foreign involvement is as necessary in repairing and developing Iraq’s petroleum industry, however, as it has been not only in Iraq’s entire petro-history, but also in all other Middle Eastern nations and the entire developing world, including major producers Angola, Brunei, Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Such arrangements provide the sources of finance, the most advanced technology and the guaranteed markets necessary, while leaving the majority of jobs and profits to the Iraqis.
Getting to this point as efficiently as possible is critical to the economy’s bouncing back. Contending domestic factions, as well as foreign multinationals and their governments must overcome the temptation to win or ruin if the wells and pipelines and ports are to return quickly to the 3.6 million barrels per day capacity enjoyed prior to the first Gulf War in 1990-91.
Then there is infrastructure repair and upgrading. Who will do it? How will it be financed? Which services will be public sector, which private? Foreign know-how and capital will be required to get the water, electricity, telecommunications, and roads operating as soon as possible. Long term, both Iraqi and foreign observers appear increasingly to agree that oil revenues should be used to pay back repairs as well as finance future upgrades. For the near term, essential services will remain government controlled and managed, with the public versus private ownership debate deferred until a genuinely representative government is up and running.
The financial challenges, importantly including debt rationalization and relief, will not be overcome easily. They are soluble, however, given a long view and reasonable international goodwill [see box]. There simply is no alternative: critical financial issues will be financed and largely dealt with abroad, including: funding the fixing and modernization of infrastructure; financing the repair and development of the oil sector; relieving the Saddam regime’s staggering debt burden, nominally between $380 and $500 billion; re-floating the drained marsh lands to inspire agricultural regeneration; establishing a properly functioning currency and central banking system.
DOMESTIC POLITICAL CHALLENGES There will be debates on process and major jockeying for preferred position as Iraq transitions from an entrenched socialist-fascist dictatorship to a fledgling democracy. U.S. occupation officials will be required as mediators. The political issues — at times, battles — will be fought on the ground in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Sulimaniyeh.
Much has been said, usually accompanied with dire predictions, about the diverse Iraqi population groups’ ability to live together in harmony. Of the estimated 25 million citizens, 10-15 percent — the Arab Sunni Islamic community — has controlled the country for 35 years. More telling, a miniscule subset, members of Saddam Hussein’s Tikriti tribe, have been in charge for the past 25. Second in the pecking order, with 15-20 percent of the population, have been the non-Arab Kurds, centered in the northern part of the country. The estimated five percent Turkoman minority, also based in the north as well as in Baghdad, seeks representation that it has not significantly held in the political mix since the passing of the Ottoman rulers more than 80 years ago.
The majority Arab Shiite Islamic segment, accounting for some 60 percent of the country’s estimated 25 million citizens, has been scorned and used as cannon fodder in Saddam’s wars, but never given any real political representation. Concentrated in the south, including the enormously rich Euphrates-Tigris rivers delta, there is strong demand among the Shia for representative power in the next government, and ignoring it will threaten the new Iraq’s stability.
Significant factional competition especially among the more religious segments of the community, assures that Shiite success will not come easily. The Kurds are similarly hobbled by internal competition that has only partially been resolved. Indeed, the ongoing intra-community battles were an important factor in Saddam Hussein’s longevity.
In the end, the direction and stability of Iraq is an issue not only for the future of the Iraqi people. The masses across the Arab and Muslim world look with a mixture of doubt, anticipation, anxiety and hope to what is underway in the country long regarded, with Egypt, as the very symbols of Arab society and culture.
In short, the job of creating a beacon of personal and political liberty will be challenging. The difficulties in establishing a free and democratic nation, however, are worth it — for Iraqis, for Arabs, and for the rest of the world.
— Dr. Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. The was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.