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MARGARET WARNER: Now, for more on today’s meeting in Iraq, and the unfolding U.S. game plan to create new governing structures for the country, we get three views. Robin Wright is chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
Hisham Melhem is Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, As-Safir. He also has a weekly show on al-Arabiya, the Arab cable news channel based in Dubai.
And Saman Shali is vice president of the Kurdish National Congress of North America, a group that promotes Kurdish rights in Iraq. He was born and raised in Kurdish northern Iraq, and left in 1976. Welcome to all three of you.
Robin Wright, help us understand a little more clearly how the Pentagon thinks or envisions that today’s meeting and the people, the kinds of people they chose to participate in it will jump start the formation of this Iraqi interim authority.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, think of what lies ahead in terms of three stages. The first is that General Garner and a crew of Americans will establish a civil administration in Baghdad.
And this will oversee the disarmament of Iraq and also get the government back on its feet. In the meantime, they will work with groups throughout the country to try to identify an emerging group, a new generation of Iraqi leaders who can first discuss what Iraqis want in terms of a new government and then select members to participate in an interim Iraqi authority. Once that’s established, the two will rule effectively side by side.
And you’ll see a gradual transferal of power from the Americans to the Iraqis as they begin the process of writing a new constitution. The final stage will be to hand off after elections from the interim authority to a permanent Iraqi government and a withdrawal of the Americans.
MARGARET WARNER: And so how were people chosen to participate in today’s meeting?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, they were largely chosen by the U.S. military, going through the areas they had liberated and looking for people who cooperated with them, who led them to weapons, who helped them identify some of the problems in the local communities, who volunteered to talk with them; talking with an American is not always probably a popular thing to do. It’s still very tentative in Iraq, in many parts of Iraq. Then they brought in on the other side some exile groups, people who have long been known to the United States and who have been supported by the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Shali, does this strike you as the best way to go — if you’re trying to jump start a democratic process in a country that hasn’t had any democracy in decades, if ever?
SAMAN SHALI: Yes, I think so. First of all, let me express our condolences to the families who lost loved ones and the Iraqi civilians. This process is to implement in three stages. I think it is the right way to go.
We need immediately the U.S.-led administrator to take active role immediately to bring the civil basic –civil services up, and we need that immediately. The other… we could do this process in parallel — while we are doing that, we should encourage this kind of meeting which I think the meeting done in Nasiriyah was successful because it’s designed to bring the Iraqi opposition together and to listen to their vision for their future.
This is a process which should be encouraged and the Iraqis themselves, specifically the Shia, they have to come together and unify and produce their leadership to process – the process should be faster if they want the transition government to be handed to the Iraqis, therefore, they have to unify, before the meeting, they have to go — this group together — and produce their leaders.
And the other Iraqi — the exile group — they have to come and help the process of rebuilding Iraq with the Americans. The Iraqi opposition should understand, according to their statement, that should work closely with the U.S. and the allies to rebuild Iraq. This process has to work parallel to each other. We cannot leave one step to complete and then we start the other process. That is what the right approach is being led by General Garner.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me get Hisham Melham in here. We heard Khalilzad, the White House envoy, saying we have no absolutely interest in running your country. Yet when you read the wire accounts of the meeting, it appears they spent a lot of time saying we don’t want Americans running our country. Explain that.
HISHAM MELHEM: They are running the country effectively. They chose the groups although they allowed some groups to pick their own representatives there. Essentially, Margaret, this is a very humble beginning, mired in controversy and boycotts and defiance. None of the major leaders that you’ve known or some of them who visited Washington representing the Kurds and the Shia and others, did attend.
There’s a major boycott led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, which is based in Iran. Abdul Aziz Hakim, who is the leader now – who moved from Tehran to Iraq after the collapse of the regime – is saying we don’t want an interim government. We don’t want Jay Garner to rule us.
If you look at the Arab press today, Margaret, they’re referring to Jay Garner as…the high commissioner, the viceroy. This is in a region that still remembers the days of colonialism where colony authorities in Paris and London would appoint high commissioners to run Syria or Lebanon or Palestine or Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying that there’s more focus on the fact that the Americans do plan to have an interim… this civilian administrator to get the water going and the agriculture and so on rather than on this interim authority that the U.S. is saying should be Iraqi run.
HISHAM MELHEM: I mean, if the Americans are talking about an interim agreement and an interim period, a transitional period, and they’re not defining it, if you were talking about another seven years of occupation like what happened with Japan after the Second World War, this is disastrous. I mean the Iraqis would like the shortest interim period possible, but they don’t like what they hear sometimes.
The United States is going to appoint let’s say an administrator to run the ministry of oil, or the interior ministry, to be supported by a number of American generals or civilians to be advised by a number of Iraqis. This is not going to sit well with people.
MARGARET WARNER: Even in the early phase?
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Because the United States is not involving the international organizations – the United Nations; they’re not involving the Europeans. I mean, why can’t they talk now for instance about a peacekeeping force even symbolic that would involve some forces from the Gulf, some forces from Europe — United Nations’ involvement, serious involvement, not only do donate food but serious involvement to allow the Iraqis who are going to deal with the United States to have a cover of legitimacy?
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back to today’s meeting. I know you’ve been reporting this a lot, Robin. What can you tell us about what went on there?
ROBIN WRIGHT: There was a lot of interesting discussion. They came up with agreement on some fundamental points among them they want a democratic system. They want a federal system that will address some of the important differences — particularly the Kurds who want a degree of autonomy in the North. There is respect for diversity, respect for the role of women, respect for the rule of law.
There were some interesting moments in the meeting when one of the leading clerics in the South got up and called for separation of mosque and state. This is, of course, one of the things that will be most interesting to watch, to see if there is the same kind of focus on a secular state as there was during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
MARGARET WARNER: But I gather there was some debate on that? Someone else said to him you’re dreaming if you think they can be totally separated.
ROBIN WRIGHT: And it was going to be very controversial. There are, after all, some important groups who are in the opposition that we recognize who do want to see Islam codified in the new constitution. But there was also an interesting moment when a leading figure got up and started quoting John Kennedy. So you got the full spectrum of political expression at this meeting today.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Shali, how much of a divide do you expect to see over this question about whether it should be a secular state or some sort of Islamic state?
SAMAN SHALI: Of course, you are going to see a lot of debate on that because, as you know, for the last 35 years even since creation of Iraq, they did not see such a democracy, freedom to speak their mind clearly. As I said before, it is crucial, specifically for Shia, to come together and all this many sector of Shia to come together and they have uniform message and they produce their leadership.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a question. Let me interrupt you though. Why is it important for the Shia to come together and have a unified message, which today they didn’t. Some were protesting, some were there. Some were boycotting. I mean, in this country we wouldn’t say all the Protestants have to have a unified message. Just explain why you think that’s essential.
SAMAN SHALI: Why this is important? Because, as you know, Shia, they have a leadership. They have a religious leadership. They go by that. When they achieve, they have a council and they meet and they decide on the future. All the Shias being norm — that they follow that. It is important to have among them a democratic process to produce that Shia — Shia leaders whom they want, whom they choose without imposing any group on them or a leader on them to choose what they want. This is a basic right for themselves.
However, when they unify their voice, this will foster the process of the interim government could be formed by the Iraqi and handed the government to them when they come with an agreement which in many meeting will happen and the emerging of leaders from inside and the leader from outside and the Iraqi opposition. There is an exile group, which is formed from the most intellectual Iraqi… Iraq has… it’s work for Iraq to come back and to rebuild. They must be a part of this process because they live in democratic process. They know how the democratic works. They have a duty, a national duty to bring that process to advance a democracy in Iraq. This process should be… cover all the specter of the Iraqi society.
MARGARET WARNER: So Hisham Melhem, what do you make of this, first of all, the division we saw among the Shia but also the fact that when you looked around the room it looked like the Americans had picked out a lot of religious and tribal leaders. Is that the United States kind of – what am I trying to say – encouraging that sort of -
HISHAM MELHEM: Some people are criticizing the United States because they are focusing on some religious leaders or some tribal leaders. And if you say that to the Americans, they would say look we cannot deal with political parties because Saddam demolished political parties, demolished political life in Iraq, and there is a great deal of truth in that. I mean, civil society in Iraq under Saddam was devastated. There was no area, there was no facet in Iraqi life that was not penetrated by the Ba’ath and…the security forces and his own interpretation of political life in Iraq.
So he decimated civil society in Iraq. And in the end when he oppressed the Kurds as Kurds, everybody in Kurdistan looked at themselves as Kurds first. When he did the same thing to the Shia, destroyed their way of life, violated their sanctities, again they began to look at themselves only as Shiites. That’s the problem today with Iraq. I mean, there was a time a few decades ago an emerging Iraqi identity. It is still there I think and it’s still there among the secularists.
But the Iraqis need now some time and an environment of freedom, less repression at least, to build these social organizations. It’s going to be a tremendous… this is a transition in Iraq. I mean, we don’t transition from what – we don’t know transition to where. This reminds me of what Graham said about transition, he said that the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying, the new cannot be born yet. And in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. That’s what’s taking place in Iraq unfortunately.
MARGARET WARNER: On that note, we’ll end it. Thank you all three very much.