Iraq after Saddam: two generations in dialogue

About the authors
Yasser Alaskary is Chair of the Iraqi Prospect Organisation, a network of Iraqis living in the west working to promote democracy in Iraq. Born in Sulemaniya, he came to Britain in 1987 and is currently studying medicine at Imperial College, London.
Faleh A. Jabar is a Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. His works include Power in the Middle East (Saqi Books).

What should be done about Saddam Hussein's regime? Two Iraqi exiles of different generations and views discuss the best way forward for a country now on the brink of decisive change.


openDemocracy: What is your view of a US-led attack on the Iraqi regime?

Faleh Jabar: War is very dangerous business. Urban warfare is especially unpredictable. We don’t know what will happen. It might bring the whole country to chaos, and to civil war leading to a lengthy period of conflict. Or it could lead to a coup d’etat.

A military coup by Saddam’s Republican Guard is definitely the worst-case scenario – just a continuation of Saddam without Saddam. By whatever criteria you want to assess it – political, social, economic – the army is the worst institution in Iraq. So widespread civil violence is one possibility. The capitulation of Saddam’s army to the US, so that they stay in power is another. Thirdly, and perhaps most likely, is a puppet regime. None of these possibilities seems very appealing to me.

So, we who reside outside the country can’t tell Iraqis inside the country to support war. Nor should we call for it. It is they who will decide because it’s their own choice and their own conscience and, when the moment arrives, their own destiny. In any upheaval in mass urban society, it’s the young generation that will be on the receiving end. They will pay the price, as they did back in 1991. Older people will be very cautious and conservative. They will stay at home, trying not to care about what will happen. This means it is the ‘sanction generation’ and part of the ‘war generation’ in Iraq who need to take the decisions. I don’t feel I have the right to tell these men to lose their lives.

Yasser Alaskary: I dispute the idea that we should leave it up to the people inside Iraq to choose. It sounds very nice. But I would argue that it is impossible and impractical. It is like saying to a prisoner who is being tortured ‘What would you like?’ They are not in a position to say. The whole state of Iraq is in a prison, you can’t voice your own opinion let alone oppose anything. So asking these people is impossible.

The closest you can get is to ask people who are leaving Iraq right now, people who are on the borders of Jordan, Syria and Iran. Thousands of them. I have talked to many, and their friends. What every single one of them is asking is: ‘Where are the Americans? Why are they taking so long?’ Nobody is saying: ‘What are they doing? Why should there be a war?’

Even if your worst-case scenario is that some elements in the US administration have their way and impose a government in Iraq, compared to the situation we’re in right now, it would be far better. So it’s worth supporting. However, I don’t think that it is necessarily going to happen – and it’s definitely not something we should campaign for. We should campaign to govern ourselves and for the west to help this happen.

Building a democratic culture

openDemocracy: What kind of future would you most like to see for Iraq?

Yasser Alaskary: An Iraq that is unified, stable, truly democratic. It would be a ‘proportional’ democracy. So, for example, if you have seventy oranges and thirty apples, the government should be made up of seven oranges and three apples – not one orange, one apple. Lebanon, for example, is sometimes referred to as a democracy. It’s not, because its law states that only a Christian can be president, only a Sunni the Prime Minister, the House Speaker can only be a Shi’a.

What I would like to see in Iraq is a true democracy where the rights of individuals are guaranteed, where government officials can be brought to account, where differences between the cultures of the various multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious groupings in Iraq are recognised and not exploited to create instability within Iraq. That is my dream.

Faleh Jabar: I heartily agree with Yasser on this. It’s wonderful to hear it from the younger generation – from someone my son’s age. I will only add that to build democracy in Iraq is a real challenge, because you need several preconditions, which are currently missing. Let’s mention two factors that have to be in place even to start small in Iraq, and grow some kind of stronger democratic culture over time.

First of all, you must have something approaching the rule of law. It’s a jungle in Iraq nowadays. The police are corrupt. People will have recourse to tribal chiefs rather than to the law if there is some dispute they want settled. They may bribe people to get a favourable ruling.

Some protection of law and property is the sole basis of modern civil liberties. If Saddam is removed in a relatively peaceful way, which does not plunge the country into the bloodbath of civil war, the first task will be to build a strong and viable system of law and order.

Secondly, it would have to be possible to separate economic from political power – a separation which is also the very basis of democracy. Without market capitalism, it seems to me, you can’t have any kind of accountable democracy. State capitalism will not do the trick. In Iraq, this will mean curtailing the power of the state to use its oil revenue as a political tool. The present government thrives on the revenue from oil sales. They have no need even of taxes. In fact, far from taking money from them, they keep their government going by bribing different social classes.

Under the monarchy, a useful mechanism was available for curtailing the power conferred on the executive arm of the state by oil revenues. It was parliament, which decided where seventy per cent of oil revenues would go. The other thirty per cent went to the government, but strictly earmarked for say, education, infrastructure or health. So that it couldn’t be spent on the security services, and all those hidden expenses that unaccountable governments have. This is crucial.

The Iraqi people must decide

openDemocracy: How do you get there?

Yasser Alaskary: As I see it, people – especially on the left – have a tendency to oppose everything in an indiscriminate way. They just stop at opposition. I say the position should not be to oppose a possible war, but to vigorously oppose only military action that aims to install a puppet government after Saddam Hussein is removed.

Many people make the mistake of viewing America as a monolith, whereas the reality is more complicated. There are different forces and elements, even within the US administration. One group would rather see continuing military rule in Iraq under American patronage, installed by force if necessary. Others are totally opposed to this.

We should support those within the administration who are calling for democracy – even if they are not sincere. Once called for, it makes it much more difficult for them to break their word. This is what made the opposition conference, which took place in London, so significant (see the article by Ghassan Atiyyah, ‘Iraqis plan a post-Saddam future’). If the opposition groups are able to put aside their differences, and come out looking as if they are unified and sincere in their joint desire to take Iraq through a transitional stage to democracy, then this will make it much easier for those who argue for democracy in Iraq within the US administration – and, of course, much harder for those who argue for military rule.

As for how we think democracy will occur, about three weeks ago a paper was prepared by several opposition groups, brought together under the supervision of the US State Department, detailing the process that needs to be undergone to achieve democracy after a three-year transition.

I’m not saying the paper is a Bible. The paper represents a good starting point, which the conference can use to work towards an agreed detailed plan for Iraq’s transition to democracy. It makes it that much more difficult for any of the participants in the London conference to do anything which harms Iraq’s democratic prospects once Saddam is removed, because they will be under constant pressure to justify themselves, at each stage.

Faleh Jabar: Actually this document was not written by opposition groups. It was written by thirty-two individuals, some of whom work for the US State Department, and others who cooperate with them. I’ve read this document thoroughly.

It tells us what kind of judicial system we should have, the kind of parliament we should have, what sort of measures should be taken against Ba’athists – killers, and party members who have no offence on their record – and so on and so forth. This theoretical blueprint could be applied to any Middle Eastern country.

What it cannot do is predict how things will work themselves out, or what social forces will take up the challenges in the aftermath of Saddam. They may be very intelligent and highly sophisticated people. Most of them are my personal friends. But what they are writing is just a general theoretical framework for electoral systems, parliamentary processes and transitional systems of justice.

We in exile, I think, have a moral duty to support the Iraqi people inside the country to resist dictatorship, by any means possible. I know the time is not yet right for a mass upheaval. But one day it will come, without an invasion.

Is Iraq is a big prison? Definitely. But that does not mean that you can control the thoughts of the people. No dictator can do that. What you keep in your conscience is yours. The fact that 3.5 million Iraqi people, mainly Muslims, chose to leave Iraq of their own volition and live abroad is important evidence of this. So, for that reason alone, we cannot speak on their behalf as if they had no opinions of their own.

There are historical parallels. Take South Africa. I remember arguing with so many friends and colleagues about what was best: urban warfare or guerrilla warfare? It was all a pipe dream – just abstract thinking. Because in reality what mattered was this: black people were in the majority; they were moving into the towns; gradually, since they had to be educated, a rival middle class and a rival working class emerged which had to be integrated, at least in terms of the economy. Under these circumstances, the ruling class split and you had to have some sort of compromise.

Or look at Nikolai Ceausescu, in Romania, a ruthless dictator who nevertheless met a sudden and unexpected end as a result of an internal uprising. However you see it – and this is what I want to argue – it is one thing to analyse the possibilities of change in Iraq, and quite another, at a specific juncture, to profess your preference for a particular outcome involving war.

Yasser Alaskary: People refer to Iran as well as South Africa as cases where the people, without any external intervention, were able to bring about the fall of an oppressive regime. But Saddam Hussein would never allow the kind of build-up of opposition forces, which occurred in South Africa. At every stage, he makes sure that there are no leaders. Often, they never even get as far as prison; they’re tracked down to a street market and shot. So it is a complete denial of reality to talk about mass upheaval in Iraq.

In terms of a coup in Iraq, what I was trying to say is that there are backers for different strategies in the US administration. For example, before, the CIA wanted Saddam Hussein kept on. Now that he has to go, they want a military junta to replace him. The last thing they want is a democracy.

In terms of making a decision for the Iraqi people, what I argued in my article for openDemocracy is that it requires someone to be brave and take a stand. If this isn’t done, it will allow whoever is in control, including the US, to have a free hand. If you say ‘I am not going to be involved because I’m scared of making a decision,’ this leaves it up to them to do what they want.

The plan for the Iraqi transition to democracy was in fact drafted by a group of Iraqis representing the ideological trends in all the major Iraqi opposition groups, with the help of the State Department. That’s entirely necessary if we are to have the semblance of a united process regarding how we go about achieving a democracy. It’s all very well saying you want a democracy, but it’s much better to be able to say how you want to achieve it.

I also disagree that its guidelines could be applied to any Middle Eastern country. It addresses unique situations within Iraq: what happens, for example, to all those people in Iraq who have paid forced subscriptions to the Ba’ath Party; what should be done about the war crimes that the regime has committed against different ethnic groups within Iraq? And so on. It is not in any way a complete document. To say so would make me sound naive. But it is a step forward. And we should welcome it.

The responsibility to decide

Faleh Jabar: We describe everything as an unlikely exception to the rule. There are of course exceptions. But they are very rare. Instead, so-called ‘exceptions’ happen time and again. Who would have imagined demonstrations in Kurdistan in 1991, which forced a full Iraqi core of six divisions to lay down their arms? Of course, I’m fully aware of the instructions to kill. The very same instructions were given in South Africa. The Shah also had a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. This is to be expected. It has its own logic. And we only have to study the history of other societies to learn a lot about our own strengths, rather than imagining them as weaknesses.

openDemocracy: Faleh, what do you see are the alternatives other than responding positively to this invitation to ‘free Iraqis’ to build democracy in Iraq, led by the US State Department?

Faleh Jabar: We don’t have to stay put and keep quiet. We must help empower people. We ought to think about raising a lot of publicity around the call to indict Saddam as a war criminal, for his war crimes against humanity, as John Cavanagh of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies has just argued in openDemocracy. It is better to indict somebody for the many crimes that he has actually committed, rather than launch a pre-emptive strike for crimes that he may commit in the future.

And this is a very opportune moment. A massive campaign for indictment would be wonderful (see Indict). It should not only target Saddam Hussein, it should also target his family and his tribal clan, the engine room of his regime. If Europe and the US wanted to club together to do this, I wouldn’t mind at all.

There remains the possibility that the whole current campaign being waged by the United States might end up as another Kissinger-type ploy to put the frighteners on the Iraqi regime – simply a containment move. What would the opposition and all those who call for an invasion, say? They’ll have no other alternatives to turn to. So it is far wiser to rely on ourselves and seek a variety of alternatives, probing each in turn.

Yasser Alaskary: Many people who are opposed to war say that Saddam Hussein should be indicted. But that option is unfounded in reality. It’s almost funny. Who’s going to bring Saddam Hussein to court? Are you going to ask him to kindly install a human rights tribunal in Iraq? You have to be practical. Do you send in the United Nations (UN) to arrest Saddam Hussein and take him out? If the US could have done that they would have loved it.

You might bring about an indictment of Saddam Hussein once he’s been removed. You could even set up such a tribunal in anticipation of his removal, so that he can be brought to account. But that is not how you remove Saddam Hussein in the first place.

Faleh Jabar: Opposing war is one thing. Leaving the whole situation as it is quite another. I oppose the war as a viable option because it involves so many risks, and because I don’t have the moral right (I fear nobody outside Iraq has the moral right) to tell the Iraqi people to pay the price. On the other hand, we must not content ourselves with sitting down and saying ‘I don’t accept the war’. This is rubbish, of course. Inactivity is dangerous.

What we have to try and do is to trigger a political process from abroad. We could do a lot to assist the people inside Iraq, morally, physically, financially. One of the ways to help to empower people is to indict Saddam, to split the ruling clan class. Ruling classes are not monolithic. No such class exists. This is one of the myths that Saddam circulates to convince people that he is invincible and that they would need an angel – Bush or whomever – to save them.

I do agree with Yasser that the regime is very powerful, that it’s impossible to have mass movements straight away. But is it completely out of the question? I don’t agree with that. I’ve just returned from seven months in Kurdistan, and I was amazed at the way they think, and also happy about the way the younger generation think – just as I was happy about how wonderfully Yasser defined democracy.

The younger generation are at the ‘cutting edge’ and will, I’m afraid, be on the cutting edge at the same time. It’s their heads that will be sacrificed, not mine, Yasser’s, nor anybody else’s in this room. You can help them see the alternatives. But being outside the country precludes any option of being brave.

Yasser Alaskary: But aren’t you saying ‘It’s OK for Saddam Hussein to kill thousands of people if I’m not involved in it’, but ‘I’m scared that if I come in to liberate the Iraqi people I will kill thousands?’ Isn’t that also cowardly?

Isn’t it cowardly to say that it’s OK for hundreds of thousands to be killed as long as I’m not doing it, but it’s not OK for me to take responsibility for the few thousands that may die through wars? Two million have definitely died at the hands of Saddam Hussein. A war, no matter how large, will never kill two million people unless it’s a nuclear war. Anything less than that is going to save lives.

Faleh Jabar: Who gives anybody the right to decide this?

Yasser Alaskary: Saddam Hussein will continue to kill to stay in power. That is the way he functions, the only way that he can sustain power. So I think it is morally right to do what we can to remove Saddam Hussein. It is unrealistic to leave this to the people inside Iraq. Furthermore, it is no argument to warn that there may be chaos or a coup, if Saddam Hussein is removed, because this applies, however he is removed, with or without the US.

Faleh Jabar: Go to Kurdistan, as I have done, and listen to the fears of the people. They are frightened that the whole operation might backfire. American military forces have their own interests not ours. A short mission might precipitate a total revenge scenario. That may happen anyway. But who would be responsible? You can’t take that responsibility on your shoulders. You’re sitting here in comfort.

To my mind, indictment does more than simply bring Saddam Hussein before a court. You target his regime and split it. And this will also empower people. If you arrest all Iraqi officials who leave the country, that would be a big time bomb, more explosive than the tons of bombs the US is using in Afghanistan.

We should think carefully about the effect of these things on the minds of the Iraqi people, because it is the minds of the people that will decide everything in the end. If they believe Saddam is invincible, they will do nothing. But if they think that he is not, they can do a lot.

The Americans are taking many different contingencies into consideration. There are so many of these war scenarios. Reading them, I don’t know which is worse. But remember, whatever the scenario, the Americans are not doing it for us, the Iraqi people.

How can Iraq be ruled?

openDemocracy: What about the economic motivations of the US and other outside powers with regard to your country? After all, Iraq sits on the world’s second largest oil reserves.

Yasser Alaskary: America views Iraq as part of its vital economic interests. As long as this Iraqi democracy, or at least the transitional state, guarantees the economic gains that America seeks, they would have no problem with a democracy.

People use the ‘motivation-by-oil’ paradigm as an argument against war, arguing that at least Iraqi wealth is kept within Iraq now. But of course, Saddam Hussein does what he wants with it. So the difference between these two scenarios remains the fact that Saddam Hussein slaughters people to take their money, whereas the Americans don’t care less if there is a democracy as long as their financial interests are well served.

Faleh Jabar: Of course oil is more than just another commodity. It’s strategically essential. The US is interested in oil, but that’s only one aspect of its interest. It has oil reserves in Central Asia and elsewhere. The concern the Americans have regarding Iraq is, first and foremost, stability in the region. They are hoping to neutralise Islamic fundamentalism. In the late 1970s Iran was the focus of their attention on this, and that’s why they took Saddam as an ally against what they saw as Khomeini’s Shi’a radicalism. By the end of the 1990s, we have Wahhabite radicalism threatening stability, and the heads of both wings of that movement are on the wanted list.

For the US, this means that a secular as opposed to a religious Iraq is vital. This is an ideological and a strategic interest. If we could create a stable Iraq, that would indeed have a stabilising effect on the rest of the region. But think of the alternative. If there were instability, it would backfire in the whole region. The rulers would say: ‘Look at them. They tried to reform, they tried to have democracy, what happened? Chaos, revenge, economies going down even more. What do you want democracy for?’

Democracy is a goal for us intellectuals. It means nothing to the mass of people who want to live, want to be protected. They don’t care what democracy is. It’s what they get as a result of democracy that might motivate them: a stable life, respect for human life, respect for the law, reasonable development (which, by the way, has nothing to do with democracy), the power to hold the government accountable, to reduce the amount of useless expenditure. Let’s be clear about these things.

Yasser Alaskary: There are two ways to control Iraq. The first option is to control it by force and this means doing what Saddam Hussein does – to be at least as ruthless as he is. Otherwise it will slip out of your hands.

If the US installs a puppet government it will make them directly responsible for the actions of that government. To a certain extent this puts a check on what the US military can do because I do not believe the Americans have the guts to be as ruthless as Saddam Hussein. Public opinion inside the US would not tolerate it for long.

The second option is to have a proper, proportional democracy in Iraq. The opposition groups realise this. They realise that they have to work together to prevent Iraq from turning to chaos and to run Iraq without doing the same that Saddam Hussein does. That is why they are working together now, why the London conference latched on to the opportunity that’s being created by America, to bring about democracy for Iraq. So I disagree that it doesn’t matter whether you oppose a war or not. To say we should wait, let the war happen, let’s not be involved, is to give the Americans a free hand. We have to be actively involved.

Faleh Jabar: The two things are separate. Don’t link them together. Warmongering, which is what the Americans are doing, is as short-sighted as philanthropic pacifism. Why? Because warmongering precludes finding political ways and means of demolishing Saddam Hussein. We should be calling for indictment, splitting the Iraqi ruling class, promising a mini-Marshall Plan. Let’s say, instead of spending say 200 billion dollars on war, we ask for 50 billion dollars to buy peace.

This is not philanthropic pacifism. People who oppose war full stop forget that the huge problem is not war itself – war is a sideshow. Even weapons of mass destruction are a by-product. The problem is the political system; it has to be changed, there should be democracy. I am for democracy. I don’t like war, because there are so many risks, and no guarantees that it would lead to democracy. So you cannot say that I can only be serious about promoting democracy if I support war.

Yasser Alaskary: As Iraqis, we do know how Iraqi society is run. Nobody loves Saddam Hussein. If Iraqis see that his downfall is imminent, they will not put their lives at risk for him. If they see, however, that there is a general chance that he may remain, out of fear of him, and because they are so entrenched in this fear, they will remain on his side as long as they see the possibility that he is going to prevail. That’s what happened in the 1991 uprising.

Faleh Jabar: This is again a myth. Saddam does not rule by fear alone. There are other factors. To use fear you need massive security forces. To build massive security forces you need money. There are so many mechanisms of control that have been deployed by the Ba’ath regime to unite the elites around it. I have discussed this elsewhere on openDemocracy. Why does it remain united? Because there is an indiscriminate threat to all of them. That’s why I say that it is a far better option to indict and isolate Saddam and split the ruling elite.

We need a political champion. The United States could play a very powerful role in this. But what we have at the present is a military campaign, backed by a political sideshow mainly aimed at winning over the UN and other world powers and not at all at the Iraqi rulers and ruled.

So we need to reverse this. It will be more powerful, less costly and very fruitful. We should empower those inside the country, monitoring their opinions every step of the way, not behaving as if we were their self-appointed representatives.

openDemocracy: Finally, a question about the generation gap. Does a young Iraqi political activist have different hopes from older people?

Faleh Jabar: Within the country, those generations who have experienced war and sanctions have begun to subscribe to value systems and forms of dispute resolution, which are more violent than they used to be, but you can’t call them impractical; they have a strong work ethic. Rather the first gap between the two generations – my generation and Yasser’s generation – is that they have been totally de-ideologised, and that’s the best thing about them.

The older generation has other problems. Firstly, they spent their lives in clandestine politics. And clandestine politics is about conspiracy and eliminating your enemies. It’s about two warring camps, with no common ground whatsoever.

They had no political institutions. We haven’t had political institutions for the last fifty-odd years, you know! It’s a horrible reality. We don’t have practising politicians. Most of the so-called activists from my generation have no knowledge of what politics is all about. They are highly ideologised, highly suspicious of each other, with no experience of conflict resolution, no experience in any kind of consensus building.

So you see the result. For the last ten years or so, the opposition has been unable to get everyone together around one table. And it will never be able to do so.

Yasser Alaskary: Most people want true freedom and true democracy, if they have experienced anything of the barbarities since the 1970s.

So there is little difference in what generations hope for. But what I have noticed is that the older generation has spent so much time trying to fight this regime, trying to find a solution, that they have got used to immersing themselves in discussion and have few practical answers. Bickering becomes its own end result.

It’s understandable. But it’s also very frustrating and disappointing if you look to the Iraqi opposition groups to be of one strong united mind, even now, on the brink of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That is the only difference I see. The older generations talk and argue without producing any points that you can act on; it’s just not practical. As a result, they sometimes lose sight of reality, and that can be dangerous.