Iraq’s tightrope walk: Yahia Said interviewed

openDemocracy Opendemocracy Yahia Said
25 November 2004

openDemocracy: What is happening in Iraq now? Doesn’t the insurgency present an insuperable obstacle to a political solution and proper elections in January?

Yahia Said: A number of these groups are involved in an organisation called the Iraqi National Foundation Conference (INFC). It includes the influential Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS). Others in this organisation include Arab nationalists, ex–Ba’athists who broke with Saddam’s Ba’ath party in the 1970s–1980s; they could be described as the political arm of the nationalist element of the insurgency – neither pro–al Qaida nor “bitter–ender” Saddamists.

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The INFC has been very sceptical of the elections, the Governing Council, the National Assembly and the transfer of power. It issued a statement about five days before the latest assault on Fallujah,outlining conditions under which it would be prepared to participate in the elections. These included the withdrawal of US troops from cities for a month before elections, the lifting of any restrictions on parties selecting candidates, and having members of all competing parties in the electoral commission. It also demanded that the elections would be supervised by the UN or an Arab and Islamic group. All these are relatively reasonable demands.

openDemocracy: But is there any chance that the Americans would agree to them? And even if they did, would the insurgency not still continue at such a level that they would be impossible to fulfil?

Yahia Said: I understand the INFC statement to be an offer of ceasefire. These are people who have provided legitimacy and political cover to the insurgency. They have condemned all terrorist acts against civilians and fellow–Iraqis, including for example car–bombings and execution of members of the National Guard. But they do in principle support the insurgency against American forces; as they see it, Iraqis have the right to resist occupation.

Now, this group is – or was – offering to participate in the political process. Their statement contained very clear language about the conditions in which they will campaign in the elections. It amounts to a ceasefire proposal.

These people are not angels. They are the moderate wing of a very radical Iraqi insurgency which includes some militant Islamists, extremists and figures with clear links to the Ba’athist past.

But they did make conciliatory moves. Both the coalition and the Iraqi government at least should have tried to explore this opening – because in the end, they do not have the forces necessary to find a military solution to the insurgency.

The Americans, obviously, had other ideas. They, and the Iraqi government, decided instead to go for an assault on Fallujah and a continuing escalation of the situation.

A role for the United Nations

openDemocracy: You have argued elsewhere that the United Nations presence in Iraq – just thirty people – offers the best framework for a way forward. You’ve also said that Iraqis themselves need to organise. What should they do and how should they work with the UN?

Yahia Said: What the UN is trying to do in Iraq is to broaden participation in the election as much as possible. This involves convincing people in opposition – who dislike the presence of coalition forces in Iraq, and have a different view of Iraq’s future from the government – that they can have influence by participating in the elections. The UN had some success in this respect before the latest operation in Fallujah.

The UN offers a model. It is willing to talk to people whom the coalition forces and the Iraqi government refuse to talk to. That always is very helpful.

openDemocracy: You’ve emphasised the importance of UN Security Council resolution 1546. Why do you consider this a good basis for moving forward?

Yahia Said: It is a very good resolution because it redefines the authority under which foreign troops operate in Iraq. It says these are no longer occupation forces, they are forces invited by the Iraqi government to help provide security for Iraqis and to help create the conditions for elections.

Resolution 1546 lays out a political process with deadlines. It limits the ability of the Iraqi government to impose laws, and clearly delineates that nothing irreversible can be done in Iraq before an elected government is in place. In short, it offers a legitimate framework for everyone to get involved without feeling they are involved in a regime of occupation or terror.

There is now a legal basis for progress in Iraq – no longer the transitional administrative law that was adopted by the governing council, but the elements of a constitution.

Admittedly both the Iraqi interim government and the multinational forces have not been living up to their obligations under the resolution. The Iraqi government has exceeded its rights, and the coalition’s main role – protecting Iraqis – has definitely been a failure. But the resolution does present an opportunity for the international community to demand from the Iraqi government and coalition forces respect for human rights law, humanitarian law, and an open political process so that elections are legitimate, credible and fair.

What can world citizens do?

openDemocracy: Do you think the elections should go ahead? And what can or should people outside Iraq do?

Yahia Said: The two questions are linked. Most important at this point is to make sure that the elections are legitimate, that there’s a true choice and real competition, that they are fair.

At present, people are saying they will boycott the elections because they expect them not to be fair, and because they oppose the government’s security crackdown. While trying to create a security environment to hold elections, the government is undermining the political environment that make elections possible.

In these conditions, it’s very important that as many people as possible who feel strongly about the situation, regardless of their position or origins, get involved in what’s going on in Iraq. They should try to go there, despite the risks. There is a true need for people to talk to Iraqis who feel alienated and disenfranchised. That’s really the crux of the matter.

openDemocracy: Could foreigners going to Iraq really help? Many would be confused, and unable to speak Arabic – or not in a way that’s recognisable to Iraqis.

Yahia Said: A lot of the tension in Iraq is due to the fact that many Iraqis themselves feel confused and powerless. Things are going on over their head, being decided by Washington, by the Iraqi government or by insurgents whose identity – al–Zarqawi types, ex–Ba’athists, nationalists? – remains obscure.

So there is scope for courageous young people from Europe and elsewhere to go to Iraq. That in and of itself can help defuse the tension, though it is definitely not enough on its own. I’m not talking about large numbers of foreigners. Many people who were involved in the antiwar movement, for example, advocate various political positions and sometimes have very positive impulses. The best thing for them is to go to Iraq and try to engage with people at this crucial stage.

openDemocracy‘s varied Iraq coverage included arguments, interviews, reports and analysis on armed insurgency, political processes, and regional and global implications. If you find our work unique and valuable, please subscribe for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy–to–read PDFs of this and other articles

Against this, some of these people support the insurgency in Iraq unequivocally. But if the insurgency makes Iraq so dangerous that they won’t even go there, why do they think the insurgency is a desirable thing?

In short, people who were opposed to the war and are now opposed to the current occupation need to look again and try to engage with the Iraqi people – including Iraqis whom they think share their beliefs – rather than stay on the sidelines and claim some sort of innocence.

Iraq on borrowed time

openDemocracy: that the rich countries, the G8 and the Paris club, have said they willforgive up to 80% of Iraqi debt. Could that help to open some kind of new political space and ensure more support for the UN?

Yahia Said: It’s a positive move, subject to three qualifications. First, they should have forgiven more, considering that most of it was incurred during the terrible war with Iran of 1980–88, which the international community in its entirety is guilty of perpetuating.

Second, for debt forgiveness to have meaning within Iraq, the Arab governments participating in the Sharm el–Sheikh conference would need to press the Americans and the Iraqi government to halt their military escalation – to talk more and shoot less. The problem is that the US and the Iraqi government see the situation in the opposite way – that these are terrorists and the only way to deal with them is through force.

Third, the biggest external debt Iraq has involves reparations to Kuwait from the occupation of 1990–91, around $300 billion. By contrast, it owes Kuwait and Saudi Arabia around $150 bn for the Iran war, and the Paris club just under $40 bn. True, the percentage agreed with the Paris club can be applied to these other debts, but that still leaves the huge unresolved matter of compensation payments to Kuwait.

openDemocracy: What about your own plans? Will you go from London to Iraq for the January 2005 elections?

Yahia Said: I am not sure. In any case, I have a view about exiles like me participating in the elections: I don’t think exiles should vote.

openDemocracy: Is that a minority view amongst exiles?

Yahia Said: Yes, most are keen to vote. My view is that exiles have developed their own positions outside the country without fully realising what’s going on inside. There are 4 million Iraqi exiles. They could make quite a difference.

But I am going to Iraq next week. I will try to organise a meeting of Iraqis from opposition groups, encourage involvement in the political process, bridge differences, and support participation in the elections.

There is still a small window of opportunity for Iraqis to get out of this cycle of occupation, alienation and violence. Everybody who has a stake in Iraq should become involved.

The interview took place on 22 November 2004

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