Last weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Hajim al-Hasani, a member of the Iraqi parliament and the former speaker of the transitional Iraqi National Assembly. Al-Hasani came to Washington to testify at a Congressional hearing held last week that was headed by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Iraqi-born and American educated, al-Hasani worked in Los Angeles as a businessman before returning to Iraq in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion. While he is a Sunni, he considers himself an Iraqi first. The following are excerpts from our talk.
TAS: There are a lot of people in America who see the constant violence and sectarian killing and car bombings and terrorism in Iraq, and they have become more skeptical that there can be a positive outcome. So I was wondering what your opinion is regarding withdrawal, and what the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal would be.
Al-Hasani: You have to remember why we went there in the first place. It was very clear it was to topple Saddam Hussein, because he was supporting terrorism. It wasn't just because of what happened on September 11. There were many other reasons cited at that time. The mission is not accomplished. Today terrorism is still running wild in Iraq. It would be a big mistake to leave Iraq at this time. It will probably lead to all out civil war in Iraq because of the sectarian tension we are seeing right now. It could also lead to regional war.
TAS: When you say regional, what other countries do you mean?
Al-Hasani: Many other countries have interest in Iraq. For example, if something happens, Turkey might invade Northern Iraq. Iran, Syria, other neighbors, they have interests in Iraq, so I don't think everybody is going to sit and relax and not care about what's happening in Iraq. It will not be good for the United States' standing in the world, because people are going to look [and say], "They came to Iraq, and they couldn't do much about Iraq, and they left Iraq." It's not going to be good I think for the morale of the troops, or for the standing of the United States which is involved in other nations of the Middle East. And other countries...will go back to the way they used to act....If it wasn't for the United States being in Iraq, Syria would have never withdrawn from Lebanon. Qaddafi is trying to use some modern measures in Libya. This is all because of what happened in Iraq. The other thing is the democracy project that everybody is talking about. It will be a disaster for that.
TAS: Some people say, okay, granted, an immediate withdrawal might cause problems, but what if we set a timetable for withdrawal -- say August 1, 2007 -- American troops will leave Iraq. Would that work?
Al-Hasani: I am not for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. I think that will send the same message to everyone that the United States is getting out of Iraq. I think withdrawal of troops should be a function of us building our security forces. I don't know how long that's going to take. It's not just the number of the troops or the quality of weapons that you're going to provide to the troops. It's also bringing some kind of balances to the army and security forces. As you know probably everyday you hear reports about what's going on in Iraq and some of the security forces are involved in that function, death squads and so forth. So unless you do some radical changes, especially police forces, it will have the same result. That's why we need to work on our security forces to balance the security forces and make these forces loyal to the country and to the state, abide by the laws of the country, otherwise it will have the same effect.
TAS: You mentioned the democracy project. President Bush has made that the centerpiece of his foreign policy: the idea that democratizing the world is the only way to ultimately make us more secure, not to mention the humanitarian angle of that. Some people who are critical of this project in America say that if you study Western history and American history, there is a long tradition and long progression up to American democracy. There were hundreds of years from the Magna Carta to the Constitution, and America fought a revolution, and even after our Constitution, 70 years later, we still had to fight a civil war. Some people say that in Iraq and that region, there's not much of that tradition, so for America to come around and somehow impose values which are rooted in Western civilization in another part of the world and expect for it to work is unrealistic... So where do you see that, as someone who has obviously spent a lot of time in both America and Iraq?
Al-Hasani: There are different types of democracy all over the world. You look at Europe, it's different than the United States. Some countries in Asia are different and Iraq may be different. There might be some differences between Iraq's democracy and democracy here. But there are some common grounds between all of these democracies. I think in Iraq, for example, if it wasn't for some of the flawed fundamentals for building the new Iraqi state we would have been in a much better situation when it comes to democracy. As I mentioned many times, when we came to Iraq and divided Iraqis into Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, that gave some strength to fundamentalist groups in Iraq. The reason I say that is because from both the Sunni side and the Shia side the strongest of the parties were religious parties, so we didn't give much time for other parties, the secularists and nationalists, to build their parties so they can compete with religious parties...I think we still have chances to use some leverage. The United States could use its economic and military leverages to correct some situations. The religious parties, of course, all of them have militias. That's why they have control of the state. So if we work to find a solution to the militias, I think it will give chance for liberals and secularists in Iraq to be able to compete...
TAS: You mentioned America using its economic and military power to try to help the situation. But America has obviously invested a lot of both military and economic power over the last few years, and the situation is pretty messy now. So what could America do differently? Can you offer some specifics about what America has been doing, and whether there's room for improvement? Where can it change things strategically in order to get a better outcome?
Al-Hasani: I still think America has the power and influence in Iraq. And I think they are still number one in that regard. Probably Iran comes after, although Iran in certain other areas they have a much more comprehensive plan than the Americans. But I think militarily, for example, the United States is responsible for building the Iraqi security forces. So in that regard they can play a role in bringing balance to the security forces and training some professional army and security forces in Iraq and also they can play a major role in abolishing of the militias that we have in Iraq. Also economically, they can use the economic assistance that they are giving to different sectors of Iraqi society. That could be used as a measure of pressure on different groups to follow certain rules in Iraq. What I mean by that is if they don't accept the democratic rules in Iraq, that they're not going to get anything. So economically they can do that. There's also on the military side I think the United States can play a significant role in patrolling the borders of Iraq, where al Qaeda and terrorist groups have been sneaking in to be part of the insurgents in Iraq. The United States can also play a significant role in bringing the parties together to make some amendments on the constitution, which is one of the major obstacles right now in Iraq.
TAS: Are you saying we're just not doing enough to stop the militias and to seal up the borders?
Al-Hasani: Yes, we are not doing enough. And a lot of people are talking about bringing more troops to Iraq. I don't think you can sell that in the United States anymore. But I don't think we need more troops. We need probably some quality troops. We need some rapid action troops that interfere where the hotspots are. We don't need a large number of troops. In Iraq, we have a significant number of army who are probably loyal to the country. So working together with the army and some rapid force troops in Iraq I think we can achieve a lot of the goals that we are talking about.
TAS: In terms of abolishing militias, a lot of people think [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki is not cracking down on the militias, either from a lack of desire or a lack of ability. But either way, there's a sense from some people that he's not doing enough. Given that you see abolishing the militias as the key to stability in all corners of Iraq, what would you say about this criticism of him?
Al-Hasani: If you don't work very hard about the militias and the security situation deteriorates the way it has been, then you will force the people to accept the militia as a protector. And you're going to have more militias in Iraq. There are ways to work to abolish the militias. You need to strengthen Iraq's security forces the way we described it, so people will feel comfortable with these troops and they will accept them as security forces that protect human rights in Iraq, the rights of people in Iraq. Also, you should not be easy on the militias, because the longer these militia people think that the United States and Iraqi government are not capable in abolishing these militias, the more aggressive they'll be...Give them civilian jobs, make them part of the civilian society rather than bringing them into the security forces. And also you have to remember you have to put some pressure on some of the countries that are financing these militias. No party in Iraq can afford paying the salaries of 30,000 or 50,000 militia unless there is a foreign country supporting them.
TAS: By foreign countries, you mean Iran, Syria?
Al-Hasani: Whoever, I don't care who is doing that, but if somebody is paying the salaries for the militia and providing them with weapons and training. So, unless we deal very hard with these countries and pressure them to stop doing that, it will be very difficult.
TAS: How much, do you think, of the insurgency and the militias is based on economics -- they pay well so people join them -- and how much is based on a belief in radical Islam or rejecting a democratic society? In other words, how much are people ideologically motivated and how much are people motivated just because if you are young in Iraq, it's a better deal just to join a militia than it is to do something else?
Al-Hasani: I think a very small percentage of these people became militia because of religious beliefs. Most of them I think became militia because of the economic situation in Iraq. We've got 60 percent unemployment in Iraq. You got all these people that were in the Iraqi army when they dissolved the Iraqi army. All these people were left without jobs and with no pay. So, they don't have any salaries, they cannot make a dignified living with the situation like it is in Iraq. They cannot find a job. De-Baathification, and other measures, lead to a pool, a large group of people available for the militias to recruit. So when somebody comes and says "I'm going to pay you $200 a month to be part of the militia," and you don't have a penny to spend on your family, I think everybody will accept that. And that's what's happening. This large number of people who are recruited in the militias basically are recruited because of the economic situation. That's why military and economic measures go hand in hand.
TAS: There's an expression in the U.S. about not letting a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel. But if you have a certain, even small, percentage of people who are willing to give their lives and do suicide bombings -- is that enough to cause enough instability to ruin things for everyone else?
Al-Hasani: I think you can see it right now with this small percentage that are causing the problems in Iraq. You can see the results, of course. The few bad apples can rotten the rest of the apples if nobody stops them...
TAS: How much of the violence is being fueled by the rulers of Iran?
Al-Hasani: It's not just Iran. There is other regional interference. Whether it's Iran, Syria, for one reason or another. And I think they are big factors in the instability that we are facing. I think there is some kind of proxy war going on in Iraq between the United States and other countries. And these countries one way or another, they are feeding this war in Iraq. So it isn't a war between Iraqis and themselves, but it is a war between the proxies of these states and the United States. So, that's why there is, I've said it before, a moral responsibility for the United States to play the role they should play in Iraq, no matter what people say. I know there is an election coming here in this country, but this is about much more than an election...
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