But is it a concern of yours that a person like Moqtada Sadr can stir up trouble for Iraq?
He can stir up trouble in some areas. But I don't think he has any national appeal all over the country. He has supporters, obviously, here in Sadr City, [as] they call it now.
He has quite a number of supporters--
He has some in Najif, I suppose, and Kufa. But then, of course, the Shiite religious establishment don't look with favor on him. There are divisions among them, as you know.
But they are afraid of him, it seems?
Well, he's a sort of a populist, isn't he? He takes extreme positions and makes extreme pronouncements. He╝s a, have you met him by any chance?
I've been to his Friday prayers. I hope to meet him.
Well, from what I hear, he's rather unpredictable, shall I say.
Yes, he is.
I spoke with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim about him. He was reluctant to even mention his name. ... They don't want to recognize him [?]
No. They dislike him. He's challenging the established authority and the Shiite religious establishment.
Which causes a serious split in the--
Of course, yes. He thinks that he has the right to be a leader of this, because of his father obviously, who was a respected religious figure. But then there are other groups within the Shiite establishment who do not see eye to eye with Hakim or with Sadr or -- You have the [Hezbollah], of course.
This is another -- They are also splintered into two or three groups. You have respected individuals who don't have a great following, like Hamid Majeed Mousa, one of our colleagues in the consulate.
Then you have religious Shiites who are not clerics. You have the secular Shiites who are the majority. I think most Shiites are secular in outlook, and also Sunnis. The religious groups, whether Sunni or Shia, are better organized.
They are organized because others are fragmented. The secularists are fragmented because they have different political beliefs. The religious groups are well organized, and they have financial resources, which give them an edge.
But I think, with time, when the time for elections -- or the selection I should say -- of the interim or the provisional legislative council, I think there'll be a lot of secular Shiites in it.
But it does stir up fear among some Sunnis and Sunni leaders, the--
Well, again, I think it stirs fear among the religious Sunni establishment. It's really the clerics on both sides.
But as populists, as you say, they can--
Yes, because they have the Friday prayers, which is a ready pulpit for them.
And they have the freedom of speech?
Yes, and they are, on the whole, good speakers. They are called preachers in the world. They have a way with words. ...
But among the professional people, among the educated classes, among the teachers, the professors, the labor leaders, lawyers, doctors, all that, there's quite a large professional, secular group in Iraq. I think people will be surprised how strong [they are].
I am trying myself actually with some others to bring all these groups together -- in spite of their political differences -- but bring them because they share certain fundamental beliefs, the--
These secular groups, you mean?
Yes. Liberal democratic. If you can get them into one sort of national front, so to speak, and then we can really enter the elections or the selection process well organized and pretty strong. So we can really face up to the fundamental religious groups. It is important, because I think eventually the real confrontation will be between people who want to establish a religious state in Iraq and those who want to have a secular state. This is the main sort of conflict or confrontation eventually.
Interesting. What you're saying is that, right now, those that favor an Islamic state are more organized than those who favor a secular state?
Yes, because those who favor a secular state are fragmented into many, many groups, many particular parties, a lot of independents. So they are not organized. The others are well organized. They are much more disciplined, and they have financial resources. They have, among the Shiites especially, something called "the fifth." A lot of religious Shiites have to pay one-fifth of their income.
To a sort of a religious fund, which is administered by these clerics. Then, if you go to the holy shrines ... a lot of people put money in sort of like wells, money, jewelry, so millions, really. Millions are collected every year, and this is under the authority of the religious establishment.
So they have money. They have organization. They have motivation, and they have discipline. The other side doesn't have as much money. They're not so well organized. They're not organized at all, in fact. So we have to catch up.
You're not too interested, therefore, to have elections too soon?
Well, elections -- I mean, for the [country] to have a selection for a provisional legislative council -- we would like to have that, because that's the only way we are able to recover Iraq's sovereignty and also to get all the responsibilities from the CPA as soon as we can, which is next June.
I don't think this legislative council will be dominated by any one particular group. I think it will be fairly representative because, after all, the Security Council resolution requires that there should be a representative government, internationally recognized, before sovereignty and transfer of power can take place.
So you see the threat of, or struggle between secularists and those who wish for an Islamic [state]--
Eventually. Eventually, I think this is going to be the main issue in Iraq.
But that's down the road? Past these immediate elections?
Yes. I think this is going to be the big fight, really, in the constitutional conference, which will be elected some time in 2005. It will be entrusted with drawing up, drafting the constitution. But I wouldn't be surprised if there would be also a great deal of effort now on the part of the religious groups to try to anticipate and try to get whatever they can now, hoping that this will influence the constitutional conference in the future.
This is what [Sistani] wants -- the constitutional conference to be elected?
I think he probably he believes that -- beside the fact that obviously election is the best way of choosing representative bodies -- he probably believes that, if you have elections soon enough, the religious groups will do very well. They probably would have a majority. After [all], he would like to see a religious state in Iraq. There's no doubt of that.
He says he's not involved in politics.
He is not. But people look up to him. The Shiite sect, they have a hierarchy. It's a little like Catholicism. I mean, he is recognized--
He's the Pope?
Yes, but he does not claim infallibility. So it's a little different. But of course, he's not supposed to interfere in politics, and he only gives opinions when he's asked for them. He does not volunteer opinions. You have to ask him for a fatwa or an opinion on some matters, and he will give it if he wants to.
You endorsed the proposal, I believe, to have 18 provinces, which Sistani then came forward to oppose.
No, he didn't oppose it. I think what he said--
He issued a [statement]--
Well, it is claimed, because nobody has heard him say that -- It is claimed by some that he said he does not like [committees] -- very strange, because he usually does not bother with details. Like "How are you going to choose the 15, the organizing committees, and whether you should use [the sheikhs] or not?"
These details are something that somehow are not typical of the grand pronouncements of matters of great principle and so on. It is very unlike him, really, to deal with small things like organizing committees and things like that. In general, he hopes that the selection process would result in a true reflection of Iraqi opinion and the desires of the Iraqi people.
But it's been a rather dramatic turnaround in recent days over this election business. Bremer had proposed caucuses. The governing council actually proposed the caucus system and endorsed it. Talabani said he wasn't going to change the ruling. Talabani signed an agreement ... which outlines the method of choosing the members of the caucuses and the various--
But now, it looks like Talabani is backing it [out?].
Well, no. What's happening now, I think, Talabani is saying, and everybody else is saying that we will abide by what we have agreed with the CPA. But [they want] to see whether there are some ways of organizing these committees, because people were not very happy about the provincial councils appointing five, and also the local councils appointing each one of them -- one to make them five also in each province. They feel that these councils were not properly chosen; they were appointed, some by the military authorities, some by governors who are not recognized as being … legitimate leaders.
Now, there's agreement among all concerned. We will overhaul the provincial councils, have new councils, more representative and chosen not in an international haphazard way as some were chosen at the beginning of the occupation.
This would make it easier, I think, for those who had some reservations about the method of choice to go along with it and have these caucuses. Because what we want to have during the transitional period [is] a legislature that is really representative, and does not exclude anybody and does not give undue power to any one group, so that the transition period can proceed very smoothly.
There are so many important things that have to be done during that transition period; not only the administration of the country, but also the preparation for the constitutional conference. We have to enact many laws. You have to have the population census. You have to have an electoral register. You have to have a law for the press for formation of political parties.
Then you must have time for people to discuss the constitution in meetings and [conferences]. We hope to do the same thing for the basic law, for the fundamental law, before it is enacted. If we can finish drafting it early enough, we can present it to the people, so they can discuss it in the press, in conferences and town meetings. Now we have about two and a half months.
Would it be wrong to characterize the recent statements from Sistani and the pressure put by the Shiites on the council as something of a power play to change the direction of--
The truth of the matter is that some members of the council feel that the council should be continued in some shape or form, because they feel it's unfair that the council, having done all this work, should be sort of discarded.
Where do you stand on that?
My position is that, since we are going to have a far more representative body, which is the legislative council, then--
Which will be a larger council?
Much larger, 10 times as big and 250 [people]. I don't see any point of maintaining the present council -- the governing council especially -- since I expect most of the members of the governing council would ... find a seat where they will be, I think, chosen one way or another. ...
This is from the New York Times in mid-November. It's pretty tough language about the council. It's called "The Iraq Quagmire." It says, "So far, the council has done little but squabble internally and complain about American slights. It has made virtually no progress in preparing a new Iraqi constitution. And in a nation where the overriding danger for the future is conflict among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, it has failed to show any aptitude for bridging these gaps, even within its own ranks."
I think it's unfair, because let's consider the facts. The governing council was formed on July 13. But until the first week of September, it had no direct access to government departments. The government departments reported directly to the CPA. We had absolutely no knowledge except what CPA chose to inform [us]. So it had nothing to do with the administration of the country. ...
The beginning of September, when the administrators were finally appointed, they had to spend most of their time organizing their ministries, filling the vacancies, even to find premises where they can do their work.
At the same time, we were engaged in trying to assert Iraq's sovereignty and its right to be recognized internationally. So we sent delegations to various places. We sent a delegation to seven Arab countries during August in order to make sure that Iraq would be represented in the council of [the] Arab League.
And you and Chalabi went to the United Nations?
Then Chalabi and I went to the United Nations. Before that, I myself went to Geneva, when the secretary-general of the United Nations asked the five foreign ministers of the five permanent members to consider a draft resolution which was being circulated by the Americans and with amendments presented by Germany, France and Russia. I went there myself. I met all the foreign ministers.
I had the revised draft myself, which said, among other things, that the sovereignty of the Iraqi states shall be vested in the governing council. Of course, Mr. Powell was not too happy about it, because he felt that it was too soon.
So we went to the United Nations. Then we went to the Madrid donors' conference. Some of our colleagues went to the Islamic conference in Malaysia. So we were busy doing these things.
Then finally the resolution was adopted on Oct. 17, Resolution 1511. It still made a condition that sovereignty will only be given back and its authority will be given if there is a constitutionally elected government. But that changed. Of course, within less than a month, that whole policy of the United States changed. So we had to adapt to the new situation. We were able to reach quite quickly, I think, an agreement with the CPA on Nov. 15, signed by Talabani.
I'm the first one to admit that some of the actions of the council really were inexcusable, perhaps. But that's probably lack of experience, and also because of conflicting interests in the council. But on the whole, considering the circumstances, the precarious security situation, the quick changes, it hasn't done too badly. I mean, after all, these are very abnormal times. This is a new experiment, in that whole structure of the Iraqi state, [that had] collapsed, unraveled.
We really have to start from scratch. Until now, we don't have access to the funds, and without money, you can't do very much. We can ask the minister to do this and that and the other, and he says, "OK, where's the money?"
Bremer himself comes forward around this time, late October, early November, and criticizes the council.
I don't think he did. I mean, there were some leaks in the press. I don't think he criticized the council directly. No. I don't recall anything of the kind. But there were some--
There were some administration officials, high administration officials criticizing the council. What was that about?
I don't know whether it was part of the infighting in Washington … which continues, of course. Perhaps the feeling already was developing in Washington that things should change, and therefore, some wanted to find a scapegoat. ... It looked like they were looking for somebody to blame, and they picked you. They appoint you and then they blame you. They appoint you. They don't give you money. They don't give you power. Then they blame you. ...
It says further-- I'll just read the rest of this. It says, "If the administration winds up turning Iraq over to the council in anything like its current form, it seems wildly unlikely that the government will be able to survive any period of time without civil war."
I think that's really an exaggeration. As I said, I think the thrust of the whole thing, the indication is that power should not be given to the present council when the time comes to transfer sovereignty and power.
Of course, this was sort of a prelude to one way of doing it -- by discrediting the council and saying it shouldn't be given power. But anyway, the results are in our favor in the end, because it is much better to transfer power and the responsibility and sovereignty to a more representative body of 250.
While the present council was not elected or even chosen, it was part of intensive consultations between all the parties concerned. At least this council of 250 would have been chosen in caucuses by representatives of the people in the 18 provinces, which gives it much greater representivity and greater [balance], which I think is certainly an improvement over the present council. It's a good development, I think. ...
[Are] election pressures from the United States to declare victory and withdraw and European pressures of creating a kind of--
And our pressure, Iraqi pressure, to gain sovereignty, and also pressures from the Arab world for Arab countries, our neighbors; even the non-Arab countries like Iran or some of the others.
So all these pressures. But of course now, it's up to you to consider which has been the most decisive of all these pressures ... although it's a combination. But I think the timing has been influenced by the imminence of the American elections. I mean, it's actually done this year, because the other process would have taken just another year and a half. So why [did] it have to be done this year?
Especially the Security Council resolution, which was adopted unanimously, indicated that the whole process will be completed at least within a year and a half. That was understood.
By speeding up the timetable or the handover of power, what damage does that do potentially internally in Iraq?
I don't think it will do much damage. On the contrary, I think it may improve things, because it will finally force Iraqis to face their responsibilities. I mean, we can't go on saying, "Oh, it's not our fault, because the Americans won't give us money. The Americans won't do this. They don't listen to us. We are under occupation."
I think it's a good thing to have an interim period before elections for a constitution, a period where Iraqis are able to manage their own affairs. This will, I think, give them the experience and the know-how, so that when and if they're going to have elections for a constitution, people are probably better ready. ...
We talked about the sectarian differences within Iraq that are threatening the peace. There's also the ethnic differences in the north. Many Kurds up in the north are expecting Kirkuk to be handed back to them, are expecting perhaps more independence than can be reasonable under a federal system.
I wanted your comments on how serious that divide, that fault line [is]. How stable, unstable is it?
As far as the type of federation and the extent of the Kurdish area, that will have to be decided in the constitutional conference, in the permanent constitution. But now, for the sort of basic law -- we call it the law of the administration of the Iraqi state -- you don't have to go into any details of this kind.
So it's not an immediate flashpoint?
It is not, no.
One other point is there's intertribal conflicts. I was talking to a commander out of Falluja today. He said if we were to pack up and leave, there would be bloody warfare among the tribes -- a scramble for power, warlordism.
But if there is a strong central government with sufficient forces -- that's army or police -- they'll be able to pacify the tribes. But the tribes did not fight immediately after the war. Contrary to all predictions, Iraq did not fall into a civil war and conflict between various communities.
I think that the thing that encourages a lot of people -- including myself -- is that Iraq, in spite of all the problems we are facing, we are still by and large living in peaceful harmony among [our]selves. Sometimes people exaggerate these divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. I think people must realize that what really divides Iraqis is not the accident of their birth, whether they are a Shiite or a Sunni. It's really their political beliefs, because most people, as I said, are really secular in outlook.
That's right. It's about power?
It's about power. Precisely.
But that's what he was saying the tribes would be doing -- they would be fighting amongst themselves.
Well, they would be jockeying for position, and probably they'll be fighting to have a better representation [in] the legislative council. Already, we feel they are coming to see us. They want to make sure that they have a place in the council. ...
Americans understand the situation as American soldiers versus a resistance. But in fact, the future of Iraq holds a lot of very complex sectarian intertribal divisions.
I think the divisions are not sectarian or ethnic. We all recognize that the Kurds are a distinct nationality from the Arab national majority, and they, as such, are entitled to a special status. We may differ on the details of how this state is going to be established -- with a federation, whatever. But we recognize that the Kurds have to have a special place in Iraq, because they're a very different nationality, after all. ...
These tribes have always been here in Iraq. Under the monarchy and then under the various sort of republics and Saddam, there was no intertribal conflict, really.
I think the conflict was between the state and certain sections of the population. But the tribes among themselves did not fight. This is the thing. The people of Iraq don't fight against each other because they belong to different nationalities or different religions or different communities. This is not Ireland, not Northern Ireland. It's not Lebanon. It's not Bosnia. On the individual level, the Iraqis don't fight each other because I happen to be a Muslim and he happens to be a Shiite.
They may fight because I'm a communist and the other one is a capitalist. OK. [They] may fight [because] I'm a secularist and the other chap is a religious fundamentalist, but not because he is a Shiite or a Sunni.
Then there has been such a lot of intermarriages between Shiites and Sunnis, between Arabs and Kurds. Families are intermingled now in such a way that it's difficult to tell who is what. But obviously, the religious parties are political parties using religion to acquire power -- essentially political parties -- and they feel that religion is the way to [strengthen] their power.
That's the fault, and therefore, look out?
I think so, yes.
[Paul] Bremer has a list of a thousand projects. I know wherever I've gone that I can be taken to a school or shown a new well. But on the streets, everyone says, "Where's the reconstruction?"
Yes. I think that has been a failure of communication. We should be much more forthcoming. For example, we have had recently problems of electricity and gasoline for cars. I think the people in the ministries that deal with these matters should have come forward and tried to explain why we are having these things and--
Can you tell me one of the worst things that--
I heard of all kinds of -- First, that our refineries, they're in such poor shape. They've been neglected over the years. They're unable to produce enough gasoline for domestic use, for local use. Therefore, we have to import gasoline. But how? We send the crude to Turkey, for example. The crude is refined in Turkish refineries and then brought back to Iraq.
I've seen the [lines of] trucks. They're eight miles long.
There has been all kinds of smuggling and all kinds of shenanigans. So this has been part of the [problem]. Also the number of cars has increased quite a bit. That's the expression I heard, anyway.
Electricity, every six months, before summer and before winter, they have to do a lot of maintenance for power generation and so on and so forth. That's why there has been a kind of a halt in the electricity.
Also another explanation is that, under Saddam, electricity was taken away from the provinces and concentrated in Baghdad. So the people of Baghdad did not feel the shortages which they feel at present. But on the other hand, the people in provinces felt really deprived. Now, it's the other way around.
The electricity situation at the present is much better than it was before. But that was at the expense of electricity being available in Baghdad. I mean, these are the explanations we hear. But I think the ministers' concern should be all the time informing people what's happening.
Also there has been obviously a lot of corruption. People steal from the gas stations, and they sell [the gas] 10 times or 20 times their price.
Bremer said that the insurgency poses no strategic threat. Would you agree with him? ... It's very hard to make progress on reconstruction, because no NGO or nobody wants to work.
Yes. Of course, it has made things more difficult. But I don't think that it will lead to a collapse of the state structure of the government or -- It would make things more difficult. It, as you said, discourages international organizations from coming to Iraq. There is also a sense of fear and uncertainty, which doesn't help an economic reconstruction. People have to feel much more confident. But it seems to me that things have improved somewhat from the security point of view over the last couple of weeks. I hope this will continue.
You're telling me that the big challenge ahead is whether or not Iraq goes the way of Iran. or there's the way of a secular state?
Yes. Well, not completely secular like Turkey, for example, where there is a total separation between the religion and the state. ... We recognize that Islam will be the official religion of the state, which of course is the case in all the neighboring countries; also that Islam should be respected as the professed religion of the majority of the people. But that's it.
It doesn't force us to adopt without question the Sharia on various matters, like marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on. But not--
But in Najaf, we visited a court where now they're trying criminals in one of [the] Sharia courts, outsiders' courts.
Well, we hope in the new Iraq, Sharia courts would just try matters of divorce and inheritance … civil matters.
You've been very clear on that concern for the future of a secular versus theocratic state. But what other concerns do you have about where the country's going?
Civil society has collapsed to some extent; the middle class almost disappeared. Iraqi people have to regain that self-confidence and to reattach themselves to certain values of society, because there seems to be very, very little that people believe in now.
The garbage nobody picks up?
Yes, yes. There's no responsibility, no civic responsibility. We have to recreate a civil society. We have to bring back the values of a society that believes in certain things, because we had it, you know? We had it. ...
Corruption is so widespread now. You have corruption all over the world, obviously. But I think in Iraq before, it was kept within manageable proportions.
Under Saddam or before Saddam?
Before Saddam. Of course, with Saddam, everything was changed, because he grabbed everything. He was absolutely ruler of the country. He looted the country.
People my age will remember a different Iraq in the old days. People went by certain rules. There are things you just didn't do. We respected certain values. When I came back, I found that there was absolutely no moral code of any kind for people to follow.
It's a very distressing situation, and this is the thing. This is a big challenge. We have to reform society in such a way that people will not only regain their self-confidence, establish a society that has certain rules and certain ideals and values.
How do you fix that?
I think with time. With time. If we can have a stable government and a free government, people gradually will regain their self-confidence and start working with improvement in the economic conditions. They should be improving, we hope, soon enough.
Iraq is rich. We are going to get billions of dollars of aid from outside. So the challenges are great. Also the opportunities are fantastic.
In some ways, it's similar to the Soviet Union or Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, in that there was this kind of corruption.
We don't want to have the Mafia running the country as they did in Soviet Union for a while. It costs the Russians so much.
You bring up a point. It reminded me that now there's this talk about using the peshmerga, Chalabi's Free Iraqi Forces and the Badr Brigades to help stand up a national police force. This was something opposed originally, but--
Yes. I think it's wrong myself. We should not have any private militias in Iraq. We don't want to have warlordism here. It won't work out here.
But I think this has been exaggerated because. These are just few hundreds; a few hundred people in a force of several tens of thousands.
The Badr is 100,000.
No, no. But I think the people who will be involved in this will be just a few hundred. ... You're not bringing the whole brigade. You are not bringing the whole peshmerga. You are going to get a few hundreds there, a few here, few there. They'd be absorbed into the police force or the armed forces. At the beginning, they'll be on the American military command. They will be going with the American soldiers and also the newly created civil defense brigades, or rather, battalions.
What is the strategy then? Is it to co-opt them?
I think they'd be used in intelligence work. They claim that they have better intelligence, because they have been working at it for all these years. They claim that they have better intelligence than the Iraqi police force or the United States, and therefore, their experience can be used in intelligence work.
This, of course, is very crucial. Intelligence is the most important part of combating terrorism. You have to know exactly to anticipate what the terrorists are going to do. So the idea is that these people, they may be helpful. ...
Do you believe that [the war] was worthwhile?
For the Iraqis? It was certainly worthwhile. I mean--
Was it worthwhile for America?
I hope it will be worthwhile, because I don't want them to feel that they have sacrificed for nothing. I'm not concerned with the motivations of the United States, why they went into the war.
What concerns me is the results. Whatever the reasons they went to war for, the result of the war is the liberation of Iraq. Finally, the people -- even in the very difficult circumstance at present -- are free. People are able to say whatever they want. They are able to publish papers and form political parties.
And they are not afraid, you know? This is the great thing, having lived under this terrible fear, day in and day out, for 35 years or more -- to be able to go and sleep without worrying whether somebody's going to knock at the door and take you away and torture you or something like that.
So this is the great difference. People realize that. Of course, they will keep on complaining and this and that. But inside, they know that they're much better off now.