You may recall that, in my recent series from Davos, I told you that several Iraqis were in attendance. (What are we talking about? The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.) Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister, was there; so was Humam Hammoudi, the constitution-drafting sheik. We also had Hajim Alhasani, the president of the National Assembly, and Barham Salih, the minister for planning and development cooperation.
Oh, yes, and Sinan al-Shabibi, the governor of the Central Bank. Do you recall what I said about him last spring, when I reported on the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan? I said that he was the spitting image of the central-bank governor–straight from Central Casting. Al-Shabibi is sober, measured, trustworthy-looking.
In Davos the other week, I mentioned this to Alhasani. He smiled and said, “He is the Greenspan of Iraq.”
The point of this column today is to tell you that I interviewed Alhasani. He is American-educated, and a Sunni. He is also the first-ever president of the National Assembly. We met in a quiet corner, and this is how it went:
In America, a lot of people think that the insurgents are the Sunnis, and the Sunnis the insurgents.
This is a wrong perception. It’s true that people from various Sunni groups are in the insurgency–and that basically goes to the wrong policy that was adopted when Bremer came to Baghdad and dissolved the security forces. I think that made a lot of human resources available for the Baathists, or the remnants of the Baathists, and other terrorist groups to use.
But in general, the Sunnis right now are active in the political process. They participated in the recent elections. I think they won, altogether, about 55 seats [out of 275]. So they are the number-three bloc in the Representative Council, after the Alliance and the Kurds. And they’re going to participate in the formation of the next government. So the Sunnis are becoming part of the political process.
We need to take some serious action in integrating some of the ex-army officers into the new Iraqi army, so we can deplete the resources of the terrorists and isolate them. I think we’re seeing some signs of that. As you know, there were recently suicide bombings in Ramadi, because people were volunteering for the new Iraqi army, and some of them were ex-army officers–which tells you that the terrorists are very nervous about the steps we are taking.
Are you worried that the U.S. will withdraw prematurely?
Premature withdrawal would be harmful for everyone. I think nobody should be thinking right now about withdrawing from Iraq. I think that what happened in the Iraqi elections should encourage the people in the United States to stay the course–because the process is becoming more inclusive, which means that we’re going to find ways to deal with the terrorists, more successfully. And that means decreasing casualty numbers in Iraq. The goals in Iraq are too large to think about withdrawing now.
Withdrawal should be a function of building good Iraqi security forces. That’s how I relate withdrawal to Iraq–the building of good security forces.
Do you have the impression that the Arab world–its governing elites–are rooting against you?
That would have been the case two years ago–but I think there is a shifting in the sands in the Arab world right now. I think they’re getting closer to being a real participant in Iraqi politics and finding solutions to Iraq’s problems. So we are seeing a lot of improvement in that area.
How are you doing with Amr Moussa?
He and the Arab League are very concerned about Iraq, and willing to participate positively in that regard. I met Amr Moussa a couple of times, and we talked. As you remember, he played a major role in gathering Iraqi politicians in Cairo, and we’re supposed to hold another conference in Baghdad very soon, after the formation of the government. So I think, you know, they realize they need to pay much more attention to Iraq.
Are you concerned about your physical safety?
There are some real threats to the safety of anyone who’s participating in the political process. That’s why it is important to give the security situation the attention it needs, and to make the right decisions and have the right plan to protect the political leaders in Iraq–and also to protect normal people in Iraq. The political figures can’t be isolated from the people.
A lot of people in America–insta-Middle East experts–say that Iraq must be three countries. It is unnatural for it to be one: There must be a Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiite-stan. What do you say?
I say, that choice should be left to the Iraqi people. And I think that the Iraqi people, when they wrote their constitution, said that they wanted Iraq to be just one country–probably with different governments, a federalist system, rather than the system we had before. So it is the choice of the Iraqi people, and this last year we had two elections and one referendum, and everyone participated in these things. That tells you that the Iraqi people very clearly made their choice–that they want to stay in one country, although a country with a much different system, one that allows federalist choices.
You know, the Kurdish leadership emphasized that they made their choice–no Kurdistan, but participation in Iraq.
I have a colleague in America who says that: The moment the Americans leave, the Iraqi army and police will vanish, like dew before the morning sunshine. They’ll just run away.
That’s true–if there’s going to be withdrawal tomorrow. But it won’t be true if we follow through on the plan we’re working on right now. I think your friend will be proven wrong. We are doing a very good job right now, building our security forces, and I think the Iraqi army in the end is going to be a professional army. It’s going to take some time, some effort, some involvement, by everyone–but we are determined that we are going to do it. We are determined to build a democratic situation in Iraq.
Which is more of a problem now: foreign terrorists or Saddamists?
Foreigners are a problem, but Saddamists are a bigger problem, although their number is not large. As I mentioned, we followed wrong policies in this regard, dissolving the security forces. Right now, we’re reversing that, so that we can keep human resources and money from the Saddamists.
Are the foreigners and the Saddamists fighting one another?
It’s more that the indigenous populations of some of the Sunni cities are starting to raise arms against the terrorist groups in their midst. That is a positive sign.
How do you think the Saddam trial is going?
You know, I thought the judge who resigned recently was doing a very good job in Saddam’s trial. He was trying to make it a very fair trial, a very just trial, that wouldn’t give anyone any reason to ask for the trial to be taken to a court outside Iraq. I was not very happy with his resignation. It was going very well. I don’t know what will happen now.
What is the role of Syria in Iraq’s problems now?
Syria played a very damaging role. Right now, I think they are a little bit hesitant to play the same role, after all these things have happened to them. But definitely Syria did some great damage to Iraq, after the fall of Saddam.
What is the role of Iran?
You have to understand, a lot of Iraqi politicians–they lived in Iran. They have a relationship with the Iranians. Iran is a major player right now, in Iraqi affairs. Whether that it positive or negative, we have to determine. Our policy should be not to allow any interference from anyone.
What is the role of the U.N.?
The U.N. is very supportive right now. There’s a much different U.N. in Iraq now than we used to have. They played a very positive role in the last election.
Do the Iraqis have a will to freedom?
I think so. I’m very optimistic. For three years, everybody expected that Iraq would be divided. We would never get over our differences. But we have managed to work together. Some who were against the process are now part of the process. So there is significant progress happening in Iraq.
What are your country’s biggest problems?
There are two: terrorism and corruption. I think we need checks and balances in everything–transparency in government, the building of institutions that can deal with corruption. We need to have a fully independent judicial system, we need donors to have some type of monitoring–so that everyone can see where the money is going. We need all these types of things, to help fight corruption. We need to put the right people in the right places–capable economic ministers, technocrats, people who will put the interest of their country above their personal interest, or the interest of their party.
How does it feel to be the first president of the Iraqi National Assembly?