Sunday, May 13, 2007

Iraq's U.N. ambassador debates a critic

This week's Inside Iraq panel discussion on Al Jazeera English featured the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati, facing off against Anas Altikriti, a prominent critic of the Iraqi government. I reproduce here a transcript of their discussion, since it presents a perspective I find lacking in almost all U.S. news coverage.

Jasim Azzawi: For over a year, [Iraqi prime minister Nouri] al-Maliki has been long on promises and short on delivery. He has stated repeatedly, "I shall disband the militias, reform the constitution, and be a prime minister for all Iraqis." But his failure has been total and devastating. A memo [NYTimes, login required] leaked [2006-11-08] by U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said the man is weak, insincere, and stringing along everyone to please his political backers. This week, the Iraqi vice president al-Hashimi has warned al-Maliki, "Reform by May 15, or we shall leave the government and parliament." So, is the system blinking red and the clock ticking for his downfall? Here's Hoda Abdel-Hamid.
Hoda Abdel-Hamid: They were convinced to join the elections. In return the Sunnis of Iraq were promised swift amendments to the constitution. But more than a year later, the pledges made by the Shi'ite majority turned out to be empty promises, and the same controversial issues — federalism, re-integration of army and police, reversing the de-Baathification law — are still as divisive as ever. Now aggravated by a proposed oil law, which threatens to further split Iraq. May 15 is the deadline for these constitutional amendments to be presented to parliament. They are at the heart of the national reconciliation process, which Prime Minister al-Maliki, under intense international pressure, has called his top priority. But the Sunnis, who have heard it all before, are now threatening to pull out from the government. Some are calling their participation in the political process "a bitter harvest," which only led to a further deterioration of the security situation and an increase in sectarianism. Last Monday, Iraq's Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi gave a one-week ultimatum, to coincide with the May 15 deadline: either the government moves quickly and decisively on reviewing the constitution, or he will pull out, dragging with him most of the Sunnis in government.

A surprise visit by the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the main promoters of bringing war to Iraq, was aimed at warning Nouri al-Maliki from the heart of Baghdad: the U.S. won't further support his procrastination, and time is running out.
Dick Cheney: I do sense today, um, a, um, I think, uh, greater awareness on the part of, uh, the Iraqi officials I talked to, of the importance of their working together, uh, to resolve these issues in a timely fashion. I think, uh, they recognize that it's, uh, in their interests as well as in our interests that they make progress on the political front, uh, just as we deal with the security issues.
Still, standing next to Cheney, the Iraqi prime minister appeared hesitant, once more, about the pledges he made in Sharm el-Sheikh [in] early May and many times before. But the prime minister now has no choice, as the Americans have put reforms to the constitution as the main benchmark set for his government, because they now recognize, no security plan, no army, can bring the stability needed for U.S. troops to pull out with some sort of dignity. Only national reconciliation which includes the Sunnis of Iraq will do — with or without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Azzawi: To assess the chances of survival for [the] al-Maliki government, and what lies behind his flagrant failures, I am joined from New York by Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati, and from London by Iraqi affairs expert Anas Altikriti. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq. Dr. Hamid, let me start with you. Al-Maliki has been warned by al-Hashimi that, reform by May 15 or else we will be leaving, we will leave you alone. Is al-Maliki capable of reform? He hasn't done it before; why should he do it now?

Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati: First of all, I don't think al-Hashimi has threatened to withdraw from the government; this is a misconception to what is happening. On the contrary, he had a very constructive meeting with the prime minister, and I think a week is not a long time with four years since the fall of the regime to make changes, but we know that the constitutional review is going on according to the timetable, and the prime minister is determined to have more participation in the government and to open to groups who are not part of the political process.

[In fact, al-Hashimi did threaten to withdraw from the government on 2007-05-15, stepping down as vice-president and removing his 44 members from the 275-member Iraqi parliament, unless major changes are made to the constitution.]

Azzawi: If it was limited to the one week, [inaudible] would be agreeing with you, it is a week, but we are looking at a period of over a year when these promises and pledges were made, none other than to the President of the United States, that the constitution will be amended, most of the laws will be revised, and national reconciliation will be on the table, and the inclusion of the marginalized people.

Al-Bayati: Well, many things have been achieved since a year, now: militias are really out of the streets — this is very visible in Iraq for everybody. Second, constitutional review is going on according to the timetable and the new draft is going to be handed over to the parliament by the 15th of this month, and the national reconciliation, we had two conferences, the prime minister attended two conferences, one with heads of tribes of Iraq and the second one with the military officers, and then in June, next month, there will be a big conference again for national reconciliation, so everything is going according to the plan. However, we know that there are challenges and difficulties facing the government, which is the terrorists and the security situation.

Azzawi: Anas Altikriti, this is a rosy picture depicted by the ambassador: nothing is wrong, everything is right, and all the blame is on the terrorists.

Altikriti: Well, I'm sorry, but I feel that the ambassador is actually defending the indefensible. The fact of the matter is — although I agree with him, four years, in regards with the history of Iraq, is not a long time, and we ought to take it to stock that things happen gradually. However, over four years, we've managed to actually reverse the situation, and rather [than] make things better or keep them as they are, we've managed to make them much, much worse, by the own admission of previous prime minister Ayad Allawi and other government officials, in terms of human rights, in terms of participation, in terms of security, public services — now we have an exodus of more than 4 million Iraqis to countries around the world. We've managed to reduce Iraq to a pile of rubble, rather than a country that resembles some sort of state; that's not apologizing for the previous regime. So actually, we've gone backwards rather than move forwards, and yes, I agree with the ambassador: there have been many meetings and many conferences, but in actual fact, there's been much, much talk but very, very little in terms of tangible effects on the ground. The actual fact is, the pledges that were made, were not delivered — either to the Sunni community or to the Iraqi people, in regards of security, corruption, and when the ambassador talks about the constitution, I ask, I mean, in what state has the parliament been proceeding and operating over the past year in order to achieve any kind of draft constitution? That in itself is a crisis, and I feel that will be a catastrophe for years to come.

Al-Bayati: Well, as I mentioned, a lot of achievements have been really achieved in Iraq. The most important issue — the civil war, the sectarian war — a year ago, everybody was talking about the possibility of a full-scale civil war. Nobody is talking about it any more; they're talking about national reconciliation, and I'll give you a good example: the oil law which you mentioned in your presentation or in the beginning of the program. I had a meeting in New York with [Minister of Planning and Development Co-operation] Ali Baban, who is from Tawafuq Group [Iraqi Accord Front, primarily Sunni Islamists], and he's the Minister of Planning, and he was one of the drafters of the law. He told me that his group and himself [were] satisfied with the law. Now, after the draft being approved by the economic committee, by the cabinet, now there are some voices here and there. Now, this is democracy. If we want one voice in Iraq, it will be similar to Saddam's regime dictatorship. If we want democracy, there will be different views, but the Iraqis never fail to come to an agreement.

Altikriti: Every single day — every single day, by admission of the government as well as reporters from CNN and BBC and Sky and every single media broadcaster worth its salt, report every single day we have dozens (if not hundreds) of bodies strewn across the streets of Baghdad and other major cities. That is a failure on behalf of the government. If you were to look at the balance sheet of the government over the past year, any government worth its salt, any administration — in fact, any private company — the whole board of directors would have resigned by now. The failures are there for all to see. Unfortunately, I have to say it once again: you are defending the indefensible. The fact of the matter is that just because one member of the Tawafuq thinks that this law for oil is a good idea means that democracy has been achieved by Iraq — I'm sorry, but that's not an argument.

Azzawi: The fact that al-Maliki has not resigned, the fact that the Americans are trying to keep him as much as possible, because a failure or a withdrawal will backfire, not only for the Iraqi government but also for the American government. Why do you think this situation keeps going on? Is it because the political backers, the people behind al-Maliki, are supporting him?

Altikriti: Yes, well, I think there are a number of parties here that have an interest in preserving or maintaining this particular government. I believe that the Americans are in a very, very difficult predicament, and that is basically: if this government was to fall — and believe me, there is very, very little to prevent it from actually collapsing, from within: not just pressures from without, but within — there are very, very little things holding it together, but the fact of the matter is that the Americans know, at this late stage, just a year and a little bit before the next Presidential elections, for the government to collapse means the utter failure of this particular project. The Americans need to shed some sort of positive light on what has been happening, and believe me, there is nothing to be shed on Iraq today. Ask every single Iraqi on the streets today whether they'd rather stay in Iraq or, if given the chance, to leave, and the answer would invariably be to leave, unless they have a particular kind of interest, either political or financial, to gain by staying.

Azzawi: With more than 4 million fewer people, they have voted with their feet; they took to Syria and Jordan. But let's go back to the threat, somehow implied, perhaps, by al-Hashimi, the Iraqi vice-president. He says if this thing has not come through, if there is no reform and no national reconciliation, joining the government and giving my blessing especially to the constitution would be the biggest mistake in my life, Dr. Hamid. Why do you think someone who is part of the government would say that?

Al-Bayati: Well, Jasim, let's make things very clear: we have a democratic process, and the government, if there will be a change in the government, should be through the mechanism of the democratic process. This is not Saddam regime time, that people would like to pull out of government. During Saddam time, it was a dictatorship; now there is an election. This government is elected, is constitutional, a parliamentary elected government. There is a certain mechanism if anybody wants to change the government, there is a certain mechanism. There is elections coming, there is a majority in the parliament, so let's not talk about a government collapse within. Now, with all respect to Anas Altikriti, he is talking like a British or American official. He is referring to CNN, ABC, or Sky, or BBC — never mention Iraqi perspective. He's like somebody who's foreign from the country.

Azzawi: Ambassador Al-Bayati, we will take a short break now, but when we come back, we will let Anas Altikriti, who listens to Americans and the British, to defend himself and [his] position. Stay with us.
U.S. President George W. Bush: And so I've come to not only look you in the eye, uhhh, I've also come to tell you that, uh, when America gives its word, it will keep its word — that it's in our interest that Iraq, uh, succeed.

[unknown]: The security situation in Iraq, which is primarily caused by the flawed policies of the occupying powers, overshadows efforts to deal with other issues.
Azzawi: Welcome back to Inside Iraq; we are discussing the chances of survival for al-Maliki government. Before the break, Anas Altikriti, the ambassador said you are living in a different world — there is a disconnect between Iraqis living outside Iraq and those who are living inside. You don't have the proper Iraqi perspective to judge the Iraqi government.

Altikriti: If that's correct, then myself and the ambassador will be in the same boat, because both of us live abroad; however, I'm sure that the ambassador also realizes that my father is actually a member of the Iraqi parliament, so I'm pretty sure I'm pretty well aware of what's happening inside Iraq. Also, I assure the ambassador that, if he was to ask about myself within the American or British administrations, they wouldn't really look at me in a very favorable light. My positions in regards with Iraq are quite well known. However, coming back to the Iraqi perspective, this is the perspective that I see: only two days ago [2007-05-09], I received a report from UNESCO, saying that the numbers of child beggars in Iraq — the children that beg under the age of 9 — has proliferated over the past four years, over 450% since the fall of the regime. We have now thousands of schools that have closed down. We have no hospitals in many, many major cities. We have no medical services. When I go to Amman, I see loads of Iraqis and very few Jordanians; when I go to Damascus, I see loads of Iraqis and very few Syrians. And the same in Cairo, the same in Dubai, and the same in many, many countries. The fact of the matter is, the Iraqi perspective that the ambassador is talking about is a perspective that he himself and the government are totally out of touch of, simply because they surround themselves — barricade themselves — inside the two-square-mile [five-square-kilometer] "Green Zone" area, and they never venture outside that particular zone, simply because they can't. That is the kind of democracy that the ambassador is bragging about, with all due respect. And yes, I am — and he knows very well that I am — a total opponent of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athist regime, as my entire family were; however, people ultimately want to live. They want to dream, they want to breathe —

Azzawi: Now that we have listened to your Iraqi perspective, let's listen to another Iraqi perspective from the ambassador. Go ahead, ambassador. He gave you his "two cents."

Al-Bayati: Well, what I said, I didn't say that there is disconnection; what I said is, he was mentioning BBC, CNN, and Sky News. Now, we know that the western media has got its own agenda, and they have their own policies. We are talking about Iraq. Now, being in the same boat, I was in Iraq for three years after the fall of the regime. I never lived in the two square miles he mentioned, the "Green Zone"; I lived and I worked in the "Red Zone," outside the Green Zone, and I know the Iraqi situation well, because I lived in Iraq for three years before I came to New York. Now, talking about his father and the parliament, I am courting people in the parliament, I am meeting people every week, I have people from Iraq in New York, and I have some of them, as I mentioned, members of the Tawafuq group. Now, sometimes there is misconceptions about what is going on in Iraq.

Azzawi: Ambassador, let me stop you for a second, because you keep repeating this. I want you to look in the camera and tell us that Iraq is in a good shape, Iraq there is no bloody killing every day, and people are not fleeing, and the militias are not roaming all over the place, and militias are fighting among themselves for turf, and for the oil and other stuff. Tell me that the Iraqi government is not in the "Green Zone sandwich" and there is absolutely disconnect. Tell me, you know, the bombs are not falling all over the place and Iraqis are absolutely desperate and the polls saying that they wish this liberation never happened.

Al-Bayati: Well, if they wish this liberation never happened, then they want Saddam Hussein to stay. Those are Saddam's loyalists, and those who are —

Azzawi: The entire Iraqi nation?

Al-Bayati: I'm talking about those who want Saddam to stay. You mentioned that they don't want liberation to happen, to take place. Those who don't want the liberation, and the fall of the regime to take place, those who want Saddam to stay, they are making all this destruction in Iraq, they are making car bombs, they are killing Iraqi people. I'm not saying there's no car bombs —

Altikriti: You were just talking about democracy; now you've put me in the same box as people who apologize for Saddam, simply because I'm criticizing the situation.

Al-Bayati: I never said you —

Altikriti: That is extremely dictatorial on behalf of yourself and on behalf of your government.

Al-Bayati: Anas, Anas, I never said you; Jasim said "people who" —

Altikriti: You said people who say — the situation before the fall of Saddam Hussein the dictator was far better than today. I say that doesn't mean I wanted him to stay.

Al-Bayati: I said those who — no, you just said you opposed Saddam regime, and you work against Saddam regime: that means you are opposed Saddam. If you are against Saddam —

Altikriti: The situation before was far, far better.

Al-Bayati: Jasim said something different. Jasim said the Iraqis, they want the liberation never to happen. If you believe that the liberation —

Azzawi: Moving on, ambassador, let me go back to Anas Altikriti. Those changes that are expected of the al-Maliki government, whether it's the de-Baathification law, whether it's the amendment of the constitution, including the marginalized people — especially the amendments to the constitution, they were co-signed by the Americans. You know, this is what al-Hashimi said. He had the assurance of the Americans that, in due time, they would be amended. So there is a double-dot here, whether it's the Iraqi government or the Americans, Anas; isn't that true?

Altikriti: Well, it's a predicament. It's a very, very difficult dilemma, and, in a particular sense, if you like, the situation with al-Hashimi and other factions within the parliament is illustrated by the saying Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The government is extremely flimsy. The setup on which the government was built and the elections that the ambassador spoke about were extremely flimsy. The constitution — which, by the way, the Americans themselves, upon liberating themselves from the clutches of the British monarch, took about sixty, seventy years to write the Constitution [Actually, it was 1787, 11 years after the Declaration of Independence, and only 6 years after the end of "major combat operations" in the Revolutionary War. The first U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was adopted in 1777, only a year after the Declaration of Independence.]; the British still don't have a written constitution; many countries around the world don't have a constitution — yet the Iraqis were forced to write up a constitution within a matter of a few months, and then amend it within a matter of another few months, but in a state of total paralysis. The fact of the matter is that this whole setup just says very, very little about any kind of promise or hope that the Iraqi people may have. The fact of the matter is that any kind of —

Azzawi: Did you ever stop for a second, Anas Altikriti, to think that the actual people who are against the amendment of the constitution — perhaps not necessarily al-Maliki, but the backers sitting behind him, whether it's SCIRI [Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, specifically moving away from "Revolution"], whether it's Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr], Tayar al-Sadri [Al-Sadr Bloc], and others — perhaps he is just a front, you know, he is incapable, and whether he is saying he is insincere or he is lying about it, but he is just in a very, very hard place.

Altikriti: It's very important, Jasim, to not personalize the issue of Iraq. Iraq, as a phenomenon, has grave, grave illnesses. It's not the matter of al-Maliki or al-Hashimi; we're talking here about concepts. And the concept is that the whole structure upon which the government was built was extremely prone to such calamities, and in fact we haven't seen the worst of it, I fear. And the matter of the constitution, I agree with you entirely —

Azzawi: Hold on just a second, then. Are you saying that this whole political façade has to be destroyed and revisited again? Is that what you are saying?

Altikriti: Well, what I say is that this whole structure has to be reformed. How it's reformed, I hope that it will reform in a very peaceful manner, in a manner that doesn't spill far more blood than we have at this moment in time; however, it has to be reformed, and I feel that there has to be radical change. The fact of the matter is that the constitution was written in a way that if you were to read — and I am a lecturer in translation and interpreting, I know my Arabic quite well, as well as my English — the fact of the matter is, if you read the constitution, it was written by non-Iraqis, non-Arabs.

Azzawi: The very bedrock of the Iraqi democracy was written outside Iraq: that's what Anas said.

Al-Bayati: Iraqis want that constitution, the referendum approved the majority of the Iraqi people. If we believe in democracy —

Altikriti: No, that's untrue.

Al-Bayati: The majority of the Iraqi people approved that constitution.

Altikriti: An Iraqi constitution that wants to break up Iraq and wants to sell off the nationalized oil industry to private companies, ruled by the Americans and Halliburton and the such. That's the constitution that you are proud of, Mr. Al-Bayati. It shames me to say that this constitution does not represent me as an Iraqi and seriously does not represent the Iraqi people.

Al-Bayati: You never mention anything about the oil. The constitution never mention about selling the oil; there is an oil law, and, as I mentioned, Ali Baban, who is the Minister of Planning, is a member of al Tawafuq, was part of the committee which drafted that law, and he told me personally in New York a couple of weeks ago, that it's the best law, according to his knowledge.

Azzawi: Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati, Anas Altikriti, this will continue for a long, long time. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for being guests on Inside Iraq. To access the program, and to send us your comments, please go to

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