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Iraqi Perspective on the Transfer of Limited Sovereignty

June 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: What did yesterday’s handover mean to Iraqis, and do they view themselves as sovereign? To assess those and other questions, we’re joined by Anas Shallal, founder of Iraqi Americans for Peaceful Alternatives. Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, who’s written widely on the politics of the Middle East. And Ahmed al-Rahim, who teaches Arabic at Harvard University, and advised the coalition provisional authority on education and other issues. Adeed Dawisha, do Iraqis look on Iyad Allawi as their leader and on his cabinet as their government?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, the initial response seems to be pretty positive. There has been a lot of goodwill towards the new government and Iyad Allawi. It remains to be seen. I think part of this is a natural response to the demise, at least in their own thinking, of the American administration. It’s always good to see Iraqi faces on TV talking about Iraq’s political future than American faces. Iyad Allawi is better at that than say Paul Bremer. So from that point of view there is a lot of goodwill. But I think he and the government really have to deliver and as we have heard now and we have been hearing all along, the security situation is the one thing that they have to tackle and tackle successfully.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor al-Rahim, a good start for the new government?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Yes, I think it is a good start. The issue, I think, will be security. This is on the forefront of the minds of Iraqis right now. And also I think this government is going to be about perception and how this government is perceived by Iraqis. And I think America has to allow this government to disagree publicly, to carry out on its disagreements. And so it’s very important that perceptions of this government be seen in a way that makes it seem independent and resolute.

RAY SUAREZ: Anas Shallal, does the government have to show some daylight between itself and the United States as Professor al-Rahim suggested?

ANAS SHALLAL: I think absolutely. I think in their actions and also in their rhetoric. I think most Iraqis are taking a wait and see attitude to the government. The government does not come in with no baggage behind it obviously. They all have some historical ties within Iraq, some not so clean. I think the Iraqi people are really going to wait and give them a chance because they’re tired of the violence. They’re tired of the anguish they’ve had to go through for the past year. But I think more than just the security issue, which is very important to Iraqis, is they need their everyday needs met like electricity, for example, which has been in short supply in places like Baghdad, for example.

RAY SUAREZ: But is that in the hands of the new government? Does the government of Prime Minister Allawi have the wherewithal to provide for those things and security?

ANAS SHALLAL: I think if they want to distinguish themselves from the occupation forces have performed so far, I think one way to do it is to provide some basic needs for the Iraqi people. Electricity is first and foremost in these upcoming months because of the heat. If they don’t see their electricity back on, something as simple as that, then they’re going to say this is business as usual and they’re going to probably not give this government much of a chance.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dawisha, can they do it? Do they have the tools necessary, have they been given the tools by departing provisional authority to do it?

ADEED DAWISHA: The tools are there, and the Iraqi government being a sovereign entity can certainly ask foreign companies and foreign contractors, be they American, or German or French or Russian, to come to Iraq and help with reconstruction project. This is why I think I emphasize the security situation. After all, the American administration had hoped that by now they would be providing something like 6,000 megawatts of electricity to Iraq. We have only achieved 4,000 primarily because of the sabotage that has been going on. You sabotage oil pipelines, you sabotage electric grids and it takes weeks to repair those. You assassinate foreign workers, and the rest of them leave the country. That’s what happened, for example, to the Russian and the German workers in the Dora refinery. So all of these things, really, I agree that the government has to provide the basic services for the Iraqis. But in a way, all of this is somehow attached to the security situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor al-Rahim, you worked with the CPA for sometime. Did they leave behind any goodwill? Can Iraqis see both on the ground, in tangible ways, and see in the near future the residual impact of the CPA, their accomplishments?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Yes, I think so. I mean as far as the school system goes and as far as universities, there has been a lot of progress. Schools are up and running. We had an accelerated learning program there which was very successful. And I think there will be some tangible results. But these things could be under threat if the security situation isn’t handled and so all our work could go down the drain if security is not brought back to Iraq. So as the CPA is leaving, I think Iraqis are now concerned mainly with what’s going to happen, how is this government going to implement security? Will this government prepare for elections? And I think what we need to provide for them is the resources to have elections in January.

RAY SUAREZ: Well there, were no, Mr. Shallal, demonstrations, no outbursts of joy as Dexter Filkins reported earlier in the program. It was quiet, a little symbolic, but perhaps a growing sense of ease on the streets in the city. And the reporting from Baghdad made it sound like people were as exhausted as anything else, not necessarily ready to break out the flag and have a joyous celebration.

ANAS SHALLAL: They are exhausted. They have been exhausted for many, many years under the years of Saddam Hussein and also under this last year. It has been extremely tiring phase for Iraqis. Unemployment, of course, is rampant. Again, the electricity which people over and over talk about is still only a third of what it could be within Baghdad. I think for the new interim government to legitimize itself, they have to start speaking to the Iraqi people and not at them. It has to stop being an “us against them.”

They have to take their message out to the populous, to the ordinary people in Iraq, and not speak from behind fortresses, speaking down to the Iraqis people in this very hard rhetoric saying we are going to cut the hands and cut the necks off anyone who gets in the way of our reconstruction and so on — yes, these are important things and I think that they need to be very strong with the people that are creating the insurgency, but I also think that the rhetoric needs to be changed so that the Iraqi people can see that this in fact is a change and not business as usual with the heavy handed tactics that the Americans were using and some of the situation that they had put Iraqis in, for example, knocking people’s doors down and coming in the middle of the night and doing searches and so on.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Dawisha, it has been suggested that the security problems may ease somewhat just from a lower profile from the United States and a heightened one for Iraqi authorities. Do you accept that proposition?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think that’s a possibility, and I think what interested me, for example, in the speech that Allawi made was he drew a fine line between those who were fighting against the Americans, as he called them, out of despair, to whom he seemed to be almost sympathetic, and the hardened Islamist and diehard Saddamists. And his argument was that now that Iraq has an Iraqi government, that these people are … should come in and in a sense participate in the political process, very much in the vein of Muqtada al-Sadr after his insurgency against the Americans. We now see that Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, is talking about forming a political party, is talking about a coalition with other forces and joining the government.

And I think what Allawi is trying to do is in a sense draw some of the Sunni elements who were fighting the Americans, into the political process, but at the same time, reminding the others, the Islamists and the Saddamists through the hard language that we just referred to such as cutting their hands and cutting their necks, that this government while willing to compromise with those who want to compromise with them, is going to be resolute against those who don’t want to compromise.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor al-Rahim, do you see that same syndrome working, perhaps Iraqis waiting on the sideline to see which way things are going to go and then returning to mainstream civil society?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Yes, I definitely see that and I think you can see that most clearly in Fallujah and in the so-called Sunni Triangle. There, there is a real battle between the old Baathist Sunnis and this new Sunni Iraqi represented by al-Yawer. This split is I think represented by the suicide bombings that happened last week where more than 100 were killed. And the scales are right in the middle right now and we will have to wait and see which way they tip. If they tip towards al-Yawer’s group, which is looking toward a brighter future for Iraq, then I think you will have many Sunnis who will be going to al-Yawer’s side. If, however, they tip to the other side, to the side of the insurgents and those who are committing these acts of terror in Iraq, then I think it’s possible that they would get more support so we will see which way the scales tip. And right now I think it is right in the middle.

RAY SUAREZ: How does the trial and continued handling of Saddam Hussein play into these things that your colleagues have been talking about?

ANAS SHALLAL: I think it’s confidence. It will be a very significant part of Iraqi history. I think it’s very important for the new government to make sure that this trial is not put on a fast track, where it is going to be finished very quickly. Obviously Saddam will be guilty, will be hung and killed at the end. I don’t think that will help Iraq heal. Iraqis have been hurt by Saddam Hussein on many different levels. Those that are living inside of Iraq as well as those living outside Iraq, such as myself who have not been able to go back to Iraq to see relatives for over 30 years. So we would like to see that trial really be prolongated. We want to see a lot of witnesses come forward. We want to turn it into a truth and reconciliation, so to speak, type event for Iraq so that it becomes part of Iraq’s collective trauma and we can all work through it together and heal.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests thank you all very much.