It's difficult to know whether to take Mithal al-Alusi rise to prominence in post-war Iraq as a sign of hope or a dark omen. On the positive side of the equation, al-Alusi -- founder of the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation and a tireless champion of building a secular government in Iraq at peace with Israel -- has found some support in Iraq for his moderate beliefs.
But the dark cloud within that silver lining is black indeed: al-Alusi is so reviled -- even at the highest echelons of the interim Iraqi government -- for rejecting theocracy and advocating peace with Israel, that he and his entire family are on a constant state of high alert. In the past year alone, there have been nine attempts on his life, including one that killed his only two sons.
We are ceaselessly told about the new day rising in Iraq. But the systematic silencing and harassment, even among much of the new Iraqi leadership, of a man who is an opponent of theocracy and a proponent of peace, is cause for concern. And, from al-Alusi's point of view anyway, it isn't going to get better overnight.
"I do believe that the Iraqi government, they are watching and they are hoping that Alusi file can be very quickly closed," al-Alusi recently told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "They are very nervous from a free way of thinking."
The early post-war period was filled with promise for moderates like al-Alusi. Aside from the simple gift of having the Iraqi death sentence hanging over his head since 1976 rescinded, al-Alusi was chosen in March 2004 to lead the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification in Iraq after 27 years of living in exile. It was a moment of triumph after years of anguish.
Alas, the moment was not to last. After committing the unpardonable sin of making a conciliatory visit to Israel during which he proposed a strategic partnership between the two embattled nations against Islamic militancy, al-Alusi was unceremoniously booted from Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, fired from his De-Baathification position, and charged by Iraqi authorities with violating Saddam Hussein-era law forbidding visits to Israel. To try and force him out of the country, the Iraqi government threatened to throw him into a jail teeming with Baathists, but al-Alusi refused another exile. The charges were eventually dropped, as was al-Alusi's state security. He's had a barely blocked target on his head ever since.
"We want to purify Iraq of those suspicious people who want to reach out to the thief state [Israel]," an aide to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr explained to the Boston Globe. "Even [al-Alusi's] own party rejected him. We hope no one will follow his lead."
And yet, olive branches are regularly held out to al-Sadr by the interim Iraqi government, but al-Alusi is offered no such overtures. Why? Clearly the government sees a future constituency within radical Islamic elements operating in Iraq. That politicians do not see the same in supporters of a free-market based economy, a secular government and peace with Israel is troubling to say the least.
"There is a need to be far away from fanatical ideas, and it's time for Iraq to have politics based on reality," al-Alusi told American foreign policy analyst James J. Na, adding, "We cannot live in 2005 and still think like in 1005." Al-Alusi was similarly blunt in an interview with the Boston Globe, declaring, "I don't think there is a difference between the Ba'ath Party and the Islamic parties -- both are totalitarian."
On February 8 terrorists finally broke through the veneer of al-Alusi's security, spraying his entourage with bullets and killing his only two sons, Ayman, 30, and Gamal, 22. In a state of shock, al-Alusi nevertheless made a statement to Radio Free Europe scant hours after the attack had taken place:
"My children, three people [in all] -- one of my bodyguards and two of my children -- died as heroes, no differently from other people who find their heroic deaths," he said. "But we will not, I swear by God, hand Iraq over to murderers and terrorists. We will pave the road for peace. If [the attackers] thought that by attempting to kill Mithal al-Alusi, the advocates of peace in Iraq will be stopped, then they have made a grave mistake...I am not prepared to allow Iraqis to be turned into kindling for the flames of terrorists and ghosts of death."
Al-Alusi's sons were similarly fearless and understood the risks they were taking.
"It is true that we are in danger," Gamal told Na in January, "but if this is the price for democracy and peace, it is a very low price."
Shortly after the assassinations, a Ba'ath Party website posted a statement claiming responsibility and threatening: "Next time we will not miss the dwarf. This is a warning to anyone who even thinks in his mind to deal with the Zionist regime. We will be waiting for him."
But, even as he and other secularists in Iraq become increasingly marginalized (the Democratic Party of Iraq received only around 4,000 votes in the January elections with its slogan "Don't Let Them" -- the terrorists -- "Win"), al-Alusi refuses to back down from his calls for peace and a foreign policy based in national, not religious or sectarian, interests.
"Democratic, secular people in Iraq are still ashamed and afraid to talk about peace in a real, direct way," Al-Alusi told UPI. "Why are we ashamed and afraid? We have a responsibility to our nation." And to the Boston Globe: "I am not afraid. This is my job, my country. You can never kill a free way of thinking."
One only hopes a larger percentage of the Iraqi people and the world begins to heed his call.
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