Iraq in the balance

openDemocracy 3 - 6 - 2004

Iraqis are engaged in an intense national debate about the way they will now govern themselves. In this period of uncertainty, expectation and continued insurgency, six Iraqis discussed how they should shape their country’s future, its relationships with occupiers and neighbours, in mid–May, before the new government was formed.

This text is based on a roundtable discussion in the London office of openDemocracy

on 17 May 2004, with Anthony Barnett and Caspar Henderson.

openDemocracy: The voices of most people outside the rich metropolitan centres of power are seldom heard in international discussions on topics of vital global concern. But people in the majority world should have a say – not only via formulaic mechanisms like opinion polling, but as equal and active partners, both with each other and with those in the centres of power in the west.

oday, we in the world outside Iraq seldom if ever hear Iraqis debate among themselves over the future of their country. In facilitating this process in a modest way at openDemocracy, a key principle – in the Iraqi context as elsewhere – is willingness to listen to another’s point of view.

The Iraq dialogue hosted by openDemocracy is, then, part of a wider attempt to ensure that decisions about national and global governance always include the voices and experiences of those most affected.

It is particularly important to emphasise this in relation to Iraq, because Iraq is so often seen through the lens of American and (more broadly) western experience; whereas, from the standpoint of Iraq, America and the outside world – including the country’s neighbours and region – is part of Iraqi reality. How will Iraqis “manage” this reality, as well as addressing their country’s severe internal problems of governance and development, in the weeks and months ahead? What are the different views on these crucial questions?

To start, please could each of you in turn briefly outline your background, what you thought about the United States–led invasion and whether your views have now changed?

Where I’m coming from

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I am Kurdish. I was brought up in Irbil, studied medicine in Baghdad, worked in Mosul and Irbil before arriving in Britain in 1984. I am a clinician and a university professor. As a human right activist I have worked with Iraqi opposition groups on defending victims of chemical weapons, of the Anfal mass killings in Kurdistan and in the marsh areas of southern Iraq. I am a founder of the Kurdish Scientific and Medical Association. I lobbied extensively in the United Kingdom and persuaded Margaret Thatcher to intervene with the British and US governments to create a safe haven for the Kurds after the 1991 uprising. Since then I have worked to help Iraqi universities in Iraq. Immediately after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 I went to Baghdad for five weeks to help with medical emergencies.

My view of last year’s war was shaped by the experiences of the past – in particular the Kurdish safe haven, which has been successful by and large, despite Kurdish infighting. I thought that because of the Iraqi people’s hunger for freedom, democracy and quality of life, the insurgencies and the few groups that are stirring problems would be very quickly controlled. This is where we all were wrong. Primarily the fault was with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) leaders who got carried away with their initial military success, ignored advice and as a consequence made strategic mistakes.

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see both Iraqi politicians and CPA officials close up. So I have been able to observe closely the mentality behind the original plans and how things have changed. But irrespective of whether we Iraqis were pro-war or anti–war, the regime change became a reality for us to accommodate. The American administration had made a strategic decision to remove Saddam and establish new and permanent influence in the region. This was not subject to alteration by Iraqis. The day–to–day policies and tactics, however, were evolving with time.

Ahmed Shames: I was born in Baghdad in Iraq in 1975, left in 1996 and came to Britain. In early 2002 I co–founded the Iraqi Prospect Organisation (IPO), of which I am chairman. IPO is a group of young Iraqi men and women in exile which worked to promote the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime, and then the establishment of true democracy after regime change. We were in favour of military action to topple Saddam’s regime, because we saw it as the only possible way to end the dictatorship in Iraq. But we are not in favour of American occupation.

We moved into Baghdad in August 2003 where our main headquarters are now. And now we are working to promote both the establishment of a proportional democracy in Iraq and the involvement of young men and women in Iraqi politics. We do policy research. We are creating policy options for the future Iraq. We published a report about the Iraqi constitution, and one on different electoral systems and what is the best for Iraq.

Regarding the present situation, I feel that an Iraqi government could have been established much earlier, even that elections could have been held much earlier. We don’t regret anything, but now we are working to promote that Iraqis should actually be in charge of Iraq.

On my last trip to Iraq, two months ago, I met a lot of young people. Six or seven months previously they didn’t know much about democracy, now they have founded their own organisation calling for democracy, and are trying to educate others about it. My experience is limited but my impression is very much that the Iraqi people are ready to accept democracy, and that the people behind the violence are a very loud but also a very small minority. This leaves me guardedly optimistic.

Hayder al–Fekaiki: I was born in Iraq and moved to the UK in 1979. I am an IT consultant by occupation and I represent a charity, Iraqi Volunteer, of which I’m a trustee. The charity’s aim is to engage Iraqis – abroad and inside the country – in political debate and in rebuilding Iraq. We also encourage Iraqis to look long and hard at Iraqi history and to take a sober view of the challenges that lie ahead. Iraqis must do this for themselves, rather than continue to leave the initiative in the hands of others.

I was born into a highly political family so I didn’t have any choice but to be politically “aware”! My starting point is that most debate – both before and after the war on Iraq and at all levels – has largely excluded the Iraqi voices. This is a shared issue, and resolving it requires a shared solution.

I think that war and occupation in all its forms is abhorrent, and unilateral regime change is a very dangerous precedent. But this does not negate the suffering of the Iraqi people under the Saddam regime and it does not negate the need to change oppressive regimes by force. Iraq is a shared international responsibility and its rescue is the duty of the international community in the form of the United Nations or another multilateral body. I believe that the international community bears the responsibility for regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein and must find effective mechanisms in preventing or changing such regimes.

openDemocracy: Has your view changed in the last year and a half?

Hayder al–Fekaiki: No. I think what we’ve seen since April 2003 is reasonably expected given the circumstances of war and occupation and the decades of violent regimes, socio–economic turmoil and chronic state of war that Iraqis had to endure. It is true that improvement is taking longer than expected, or had been hoped. But I think it’s unreasonable to expect life to change for the better any quicker, considering what Iraq has been through.

Sami Zubaida: I was born in Iraq, finished secondary school there, and then came to England, where I have lived most of my life. I am from a Jewish family, so difficulties even before Saddam were high. I was last in Baghdad over forty years ago.

Nevertheless, I have kept up with, and written about Iraqi culture and politics and the suffering of the Iraqi people. I have been active as a scholar of Iraq and the Middle East, but not active in politics. I was in favour of the recent US–led war because, despite all the problems, it was the only way I could see in which that nightmare regime could be ended.

I’ve changed my view a great deal. The American blunders – whether due to mere incompetence or a malicious mindset, especially in the last few weeks – have made me think again. We’ve caught a glimpse of an ugly American attitude towards Iraqis, not the naively benevolent view one had earlier.

As for the future, I don’t see anything good happening. Iraq needs and a majority wants a legitimate political process. But the only forces on the ground which seem to be successful are those trying to prevent a political process – from which they will not benefit. So I don’t see any prospect for a democratic and peaceful Iraq, at least not for a long time.

Maysoon Pachachi: I am an Iraqi filmmaker. I’ve lived in Britain for something like thirty–five years. I went back to Iraq about two months ago. I’ve always been interested in the lived experience of people, rather than the machinations of formal politics; my political involvement is at a grassroots level.

I made a film about Iraqi women in exile, shown on Channel 4 in Britain, and helped start a group of Iraqi and non–Iraqi women here in Britain, about four years ago, to campaign against the sanctions on Iraq which we felt were not harming the regime but the people and destroying the society. We also campaigned against the recent war.

Now I am making a documentary film about this moment in history, and helping to set up an independent film and television college in Baghdad to train young people in the basics of filmmaking so that they can actually make their own films.

What’s happening now is shocking to me, but not that surprising. Obviously, there’s a great sense of relief that Saddam is no longer there, but I always felt that a war and an occupation would be disastrous. But that’s the reality and we have to deal with it somehow.

Yousif al–Khoei: I was born in Iraq, studied secondary school in Baghdad and Najaf, and moved to England in 1976. In 1991 I joined the al–Khoei Foundation, founded by my grandfather. The foundation is an international Islamic charity and, amongst other humanitarian activities, we document human rights abuses, especially in the south, and I helped make the famous documentary Saddam’s Killing Fields in the early 1990s. I’ve been twice to Iraq since the end of the 2003 war.

Much of the suffering of the Iraqi people has been a result of the misguided policies of western powers. They actively helped Saddam in the 1980s and in 1991 they allowed him to crush the uprising. So I feel the west had a moral duty to the Iraqi people to remove the regime, and I couldn’t see any other prospect for doing this other than military action from outside.

Have I changed my views? I agree that it could and should have been done better. The Americans don’t seem to have a coordinated policy. Recent events especially have not furthered the cause of democracy in the region.

America in an Iraqi lens

openDemocracy: Can the Americans open the way to democracy in Iraq?

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I have no illusions about why the Americans fought this war. Saddam and the other dictators in the greater Middle East, who were supported by both superpowers at different times, are products of the cold war, and the way the superpowers organised their security. That cold war is over. Now terrorism is enemy number one – to trade, to stability and to American influence. In the new era, people like Saddam are in the way or even add to the risks of terrorism, therefore they must go or adapt.

The Americans are in this new game for the long term and are determined to protect their interest in the region without relying on unstable dictators. They will not request permission from Iraqis, regional powers, Europeans or the United Nations. They have concluded that establishing some form of democracy and permanent American presence across the Middle East is the most secure way of fighting terrorism. They began the process with Iraq, with the hope that this will have a domino effect in the region. This means we have to think of the future of Iraq in this context as well as in the light of the regional complexity that the Americans have for so long underestimated.

Hayder al–Fekaiki: Yes, I agree with Dlawer, I think the Americans know exactly what they want. They certainly went into war with their eyes wide open. Iraq is a very big first step into a far–reaching mission that goes beyond Iraq.

Sami Zubaida: The Americans are in Iraq to stay, whether we like it or not. They want to establish military bases and to maintain Iraq in their sphere of influence. But as for the political system in Iraq, how they proceed becomes ever less certain the more violent and chaotic things become. I’m beginning to wonder whether, quite soon, the US will turn to a “son of Saddam”: a strong man and an authoritarian regime to control the country on its behalf.

There are other factors to take into account. Kurdish autonomy has been a success story for far. What influence will this have on the future of Iraq? Obviously the Kurdish enclave is not ideal, but it does have, at least to a degree, representative government with some democracy, pluralism and human rights – although with many violations as well. Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that this cannot be expanded to the rest of Iraq.

One thing that non–Kurdish Iraqis – the Arabs – seem so far to agree on is that they don’t want Kurdish autonomy. But there’s nothing they can do. Only the Americans can force the Kurds back into subservience to a central Iraqi authority. If the Americans were to leave Iraq, all sorts of violent forces could be released around the Kurdish question.

openDemocracy: Ahmed, do you agree? You’re trying to create a political process for peaceful democratic development.

Ahmed Shames: We will only get a “son of Saddam” if or when the Americans declare defeat in Iraq and, so far at least, I can’t see this happening. We Iraqis are lucky to have the world’s superpower on our side to try to build a genuine democracy, but because it’s the world’s superpower it comes with all the arrogance and the over–confidence attached to it.

I do think there is still a good prospect for democracy in Iraq. It will not happen tomorrow. It will not happen next year. But we can see the steps that are needed and that the acceptance also exists. What we need to do now is empower the majority that is still almost silent. The majority of Iraqis do not want to see violence. They do not want take the rights of others. They would rather live in a united, democratic Iraq.

Let me give you an example. We were on the phone yesterday to my wife’s family in Najaf. The great majority of people there are against Muqtada al–Sadr and his crew. These are the people that we need to empower in Iraq. This is why I think grassroots work is very important. We need to look at long–term plans. Unfortunately we have the American elections in November 2004 and short–term achievements are becoming more important than the long–term creation of a democratic infrastructure.

Maysoon Pachachi: I agree with some of what you’re saying. In March, I attended some women’s meetings in Baghdad. These were broad–based with people of different political persuasions and backgrounds. Everyone talked about how the complete collapse of the state infrastructure and the disastrous security situation had created a kind of paralysis in the society. The lack of security affects women in particular, but political empowerment is very difficult to achieve for anyone in these circumstances.

People were very aware that any real change in the political culture would take a long time. At the moment, for many Iraqis “democracy” is just a slogan, an abstraction – we don’t know what it really means in practice: that government derives its authority from the people. Bottom to top and not the other way round. And we also have long–established habits of fear and corruption inside our psyches, which we want to get rid of. It will be a gradual step–by–step process and it will take time, especially in the teeth of this catastrophic violence and occupation.

The Americans may try to bring in the “son of Saddam”, but I’m not sure they will succeed. The violence of the so–called “resistance” to the occupation doesn’t seem to have any political, social or economic programme behind it. There is a chance, though, that in time a proper political resistance – peaceful and effective – will take shape. It will all take time. I wouldn’t say I was optimistic, but I’m not without hope.

An Iraqi political settlement?

openDemocracy: Is federation the answer for Iraq?

Hayder al–Fekaiki: Yes, I think that’s the best way forward. I really don’t understand objections to the Kurds having autonomy. After all, it was the republic of Iraq which granted autonomy to Iraqi Kurds in March 1970 . In my view, the Kurds are no different to the Palestinians with respect to having their own distinct land, language, history and heritage.

The question of federalism is one aspect of a wider issue, while the core question remains as to the overall maturity of the political debate and process within Iraq. Whether you’re resisting occupation, or whether you are pro–federalism or pro–democracy, I believe that as Iraqis we have some way to go before we are able to effectively debate and build our political future.

Iraqis have long over–simplified the debate. Throughout my years of living within the opposition, our principal thesis remained: “if only we can get rid of Saddam, everything will be back to normal”. Well it isn’t, and we now can see that all too clearly. It’s not just about Saddam. It’s about the history of a people. People who have almost become addicted to violence. Look at what bloody struggle the Kurds had to go through before they managed to put together something which had some semblance of democracy. Iraqis as a whole will have to go through that. And it’s going to take some time before we get through it and out of it.

Yousif al–Khoei: I too am pessimistic for the short term but optimistic for the longer term. Iraq has huge internal problems – ethnic and sectarian divides, tribalism. It shares typical “third world” problems of lack of education and underdevelopment, like many comparable countries. This is all compounded by the fear of the regional powers, which do not want to see a success in Iraq, because it directly affects them. It is simply not possible to solve all our problems, which go back many generations, in one go.

But my own prediction was that there would be more sectarian problems than there actually have been. In practice the various leaderships have been surprisingly sensible and alert to the problems of division.

I think it will take some time to resolve the Kurdish problem. In my view, most Kurds would like to have not just autonomy but complete independence, but they shy away from saying this because of destabilising effects if would have in the region from which they might suffer the most.

Putting the Kurds aside for the moment, I think that the SunniShi’a divide goes right to the heart of many of the problems in Iraq. As a minority that has been in power for generations, the Sunni are having a hard time adjusting to their reduced status. But I think they will get used to it. There are signs that Shi’a and Sunni are talking, or at least beginning to talk, to each other.

Perhaps we need a peace and reconciliation process in Iraq as soon as possible.

As for the “little groups” of armed resistance as I call them, they are banking on the ignorance and the feelings of the uneducated masses. Some are even issuing supposedly religious edicts which permit people to steal so long as they pay them a percentage of the money. This is simply not sustainable. The forces of extremism will get nowhere unless they are financed by regional powers.

People haven’t had the opportunity to vote yet, but they have amazing ways of expressing themselves and showing their collective will in wise and constructive ways. Take just one example. Just after Saddam’s fall a number of Sunni mosques built by the regime were taken over by the Shi’a. One might expect this to lead to conflict, even civil war. But immediately the religious leaders, who are not supposed to be too democratic, realised the danger and issued edicts to evict them and give the mosques back to the Sunni. I think that shows political maturity within Iraq. And don’t forget Iraq has a very big middle class, more than any other country in the region except perhaps Iran and Egypt.

openDemocracy: Yahia Said, whom we interviewed by phone between London and Baghdad a month ago is more optimistic than, for example, Sami is. He says there is a process of rebuilding and reconstruction – vibrant newspapers, building and restoration whether it’s health or electricity – that is largely unreported in the west. At the same time, he stresses, there is intense disenchantment with the Americans and with the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I think we all agree on that. Things will get worse before they get better. Democracy will take generations. It starts with the family, then the local community, and then the whole of Iraq. We haven’t even seen the beginning. It will take decades.

There are many dimensions to this complex challenge, including US policies and tactics, the regional power politics and Iraq’s internal balance of power. The Americans handled the current situation with no clear vision. But their involvement in the Iraqi internal process will be critical because without their dedication and determination, properly applied, there will be no democracy in Iraq, just disintegration.

Iraq – the sacred entity that was drawn about eighty years ago – was an artificial creation. And as far as I can see most American and British strategists seem to think that the only natural way of ruling Iraq is to have a very strong central government presiding over everybody irrespective of local cultural, political, linguistic or historical differences. Now, we really shouldn’t be influenced by the history of the last century where Iraq was ruled by a small nationalist minority at the expense of the rest of the Iraqis. We have to think again what is the best way forward.

It is noteworthy that in the past decade, and important in the last year, two contrasting political domains have evolved. The Kurdish region has been ruled by two strong organisations which are essentially governing large territories. By contrast in the rest of Iraq (especially in the Sunni areas), no unifying leaders, leading organisations or popular movements have emerged to represent wide sections of the population. In a new and democratic Iraq, no single party is ever likely to fill the pan–Iraqi vacuum; therefore, it is virtually impossible (at least in the near future) to envisage the re–establishment of a strong central government that will enjoy a popular mandate.

The existing Kurdish entity does not offer any kind of model. The Kurds enjoy effective independence, peace and even relative prosperity for now, but we all know that this is an anomalous situation that cannot last . As an independent state, Iraqi Kurdistan would be weak and isolated. For example, without the Arab dimension and the unity of Iraqi voice, the Kurds couldn’t have stopped a Turkish intervention or invasion – the ultimate Kurdish nightmare scenario.

Many Iraqi Arabs think that the first thing to tackle before reshaping Iraqi is to demolish the current Kurdishentity. In fact this should be the last thing to touch, particularly in view of the current security situation. It’s the state of the rest of Iraq and their lack of security, prosperity and political representation that remain cause for concern and should be resolved first. This will make it easier for the Kurds to reciprocate. Finally, the Iraqis need to agree amongst themselves a format that is more natural and works better for the long term. It is then, that the coalition forces, especially the Americans, who will continue to play a major role here, will be happy to sign up to an Iraqi tailor–made outcome.

Ahmed Shames: Iraq’s history is one dictatorship after the other. That means that it’s essential to decentralise power. But the debate about federalism in Iraq is immature. A lot of people in Iraq simply do not understand what federalism is. They think it means dividing up the country. So the negative ideas about federalism we see now from political movements inside the country is not because they don’t like federalism, it’s because they don’t understand it.

The lack of political sophistication goes even deeper. If you ask most people about the IGC, they’ll be quick to say “we don’t like it”. But if you ask them who they would prefer they cannot offer coherent alternatives. The same applies to Americans. Recent opinion polls show that 57% of Iraqis wanted the Americans out. But when you ask them, “if the Americans go out, who runs the country?” They don’t have answers.

Sami Zubaida: Democracy is not just ideological conviction, but institutions and procedures. There are few democrats in Middle East countries, but democracy, of sorts, can be instituted nevertheless, as we see in the case of Turkey. There, the different parties have not been particularly democratic, and the country has been notorious for human rights violations. Yet, the fact that there is a genuine democratic process with a plurality of players and elections which change governments, induces the parties to play the game and follow procedure in order to compete for constituencies of support.

This has been especially the case with the Islamic party holding the current majority: no particular democratic credentials in terms of history or ideology, but emerging now as a champion of democracy. We see the opposite in Egypt, where repressive government and faux democracy sharpens the authoritarian tendencies of most players. The lesson for Iraq is that political education in democracy, while desirable, will not achieve results without the institution of the democratic game. It is instructive to remember that in Turkey this institution started with the cold war and the country’s insertion into Nato and the “free world”, and is maturing with the prospect of European Union membership.

Yousif al–Khoei: We have to recognise that for many people in the region “democracy” has a bad name. They sometimes see it as cultural invasion in the name of democracy, the opposite of their own self–determination. And we have to recognise that the track record of America and the Europeans in the region has been to support the countries which are the most anti–democratic, in order to have access to oil. The masses of the Muslim and Arab people just do not trust the west in terms of its good intentions about democracy.

openDemocracy: Are you saying that the Americans should leave Iraq because if they did, then the majority could find a democratic way forward?

Yousif al–Khoei: No, I am saying that Americans should not try to impose a Washington–style or Westminster–style democracy on the region. I think their presence is crucial for stability in the short–term. But I think in the long–term that there is enough within Iraq’s own institutions to create a good basis for a future democratic system. For example, civil society within the marginalised Shi’a majority was developed to quite a sophisticated level despite totalitarian control by the Ba’athist state. This can be seen by the religious traditions of Najaf which encouraged sustainable existence and was probably a crucial factor in Saddam Hussein’s hijacking of religious symbols to legitimise his own hold on power. The Americans ought to have a clear strategy, which includes an exit strategy that is good for Iraq.

Hayder al–Fekaiki: It is early days to talk about democracy in Iraq in any shape or form. What we need before all of this is a viable political infrastructure to fill the void.

Iraqis still expect to be “given” democracy as they expect to be given electricity, water and security. This attitude comes from a culture of religious, tribal and political autocracy which culminated in the form of a demagogue who left Iraqis nearly devoid of their conscious–self. Now they have to come round to the idea of free will.

The role of regional powers and the UN

openDemocracy: What about the neighbouring countries. Can they play a role in helping to build democracy in Iraq?

Sami Zubaida: The suggestion that neighbouring Arab states should send in peacekeeping forces is naïve in the extreme. They are transparently interested parties. They will be perceived by most Iraqis as partisan Arab nationalists, which, in Iraq, is associated with political Sunnism and the Ba’ath.

Ahmed Shames: My impression is that the vast bulk of the violence in Iraq is being perpetrated on behalf of the regional countries. There’s less violence in Iraqi Kurdistan because it has a well–established government and a security system that prevents people from sending weapons and fighters and jihadis across the borders. Elsewhere the Americans have done a miserable job protecting Iraq’s borders. You can smuggle tons of weapons and fighters across them. This was the case when I went there. The borders were incredibly poor and the Americans didn’t seem to care much.

Yousif al–Khoei: Yes, there is potential for the country to be divided under the influence of the regional powers. Sometimes it can seem as if they are the occupiers, not America. Some senior religious figures have asked me why, if the Americans are serious, are they allowing these open borders?

Ahmed Shames: A lot of people in Iraq think the Americans are doing this deliberately, that they are trying to attract terrorists into Iraq so they can sort them inside Iraq rather than trying to fight them on the streets of Europe and North America. This is an understanding inside Iraq. It may be right. It may be wrong. One thing is sure: the Americans have not done enough to protect the borders.

Maysoon Pachachi: Yes, there are a million conspiracy theories in Iraq. Every time there’s a suicide bombing people ask, who did it? Was it the Americans, the Iranians, Mossad? You name it, nobody really knows. The people that I have spoken with always – especially when large numbers of Iraqis are killed – say “a suicide bombing? Impossible. This is not an Iraqi habit. If we had been prepared to blow ourselves up we would have done it and got rid of Saddam a long time ago”

openDemocracy: Do you agree that to achieve a democratic structure, and fair elections, there has to be an outside force?

Maysoon Pachachi: Yes. But I think the alternatives are not just the Americans being there, or nominally withdrawing leaving behind their “son of Saddam”. Instead, why not introduce an effective international presence, drawing on countries and people who were opposed to the war?

This may seem hopelessly optimistic, but it’s my wish. I still hope that it is possible, against all the odds, to put the democratic “game” in place, establish an electoral law, do the census, form political parties and have credible, solid elections, that are not open to question – under the umbrella, at first, of some sort of international protection.

Ahmed Shames: It will have to be a force that’s seen as unbiased, a force that does not belong to any entity within Iraq.

Maysoon Pachachi: Not an occupation force.

openDemocracy: Can the United Nations deliver this?

Ahmed Shames: I think the Coalition Provisional Authority made a mistake in choosing Lakhdar Brahimi as representative for the United Nations in Iraq. Many Iraqis active in politics feel this way.

People say he’s an Arab nationalist, and Arab nationalism is just one of the political movements inside Iraq. He does not have a good track record for establishing democracy . He has been accused of bias against theShi’a in his first report.

Sami Zubaida: Whatever government gets chosen many people will be unhappy with it. Whoever is brought in, others will say saying “they are not representative”. There’s a deeply entrenched problem in the ministries, which is likely to carry over into the new government. Essentially, the ministries have become instruments of patronage for various special interest groups.

Yousif al–Khoei: I agree that there are major problems, in that everybody, every party is trying to grab as much power as they can in the short space of time they know they are in this or that ministry. In a way this is to be expected. People have suffered a lot, they have not seen power before. In western terms, they are abusing it. But I think that’s a process that will not last because the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people have picked this up, recognised it as a problem and it’s not going to come again and again.

Sami Zubaida: But this is not democracy. It is populism.

Yousif al–Khoei: I don’t agree. It offers a basis for something much more positive, and we can see the influence of this on an emerging political culture. I’m talking about areas outside sophisticated, urban Baghdad. In these areas, I have heard Marxists say that Islamists must have a say, and I have heard Islamists say we should listen to secularists. This is why I’m a bit more optimistic. People want to reach agreement.

Maysoon Pachachi: The idea that the IGC will be dissolved is certainly good news because people despair of it. There is an incredible amount of patronage, corruption and opportunism. If the new government has new people, technocrats who at least have some experience in running ministries, that could be a good thing.

A dual challenge

openDemocracy: Is it a good idea to hold elections at the end of the year?

Ahmed Shames: The fundamental law says that there will be elections before February 2005 . That seems to be a bit optimistic, but if we don’t have elections sometime next year the country will collapse. I was in favour of a technocratic government at the beginning, a year ago. Now after all the recent problems, I think a technocratic government, without a political personality, will be seen by Iraqis as a puppet. We need a genuine Iraqi political leadership.

Hayder al–Fekaiki: We’re in a situation where violence has the upper hand. I don’t think this will change with the choice of Iyad Allawi to lead the caretaker government. The security situation has to be sorted out first, before we start talking about meaningful elections.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: This discussion clearly reflects the fact that there is concern that elections may not be held. So there needs to be an international effort to make sure they are held. Elections will legitimise the new government and leave no excuse for the Americans not to hand over proper power. And it will be an example of how things can work, that even in Islamic countries you can have free elections and build the institutions for democracy. The conclusion of this meeting, I would suggest, is not that we should worry about the handover from the IGC but that we should be campaigning to gather global support to make sure that the Americans, as well as the new interim government, will work for free, fair and robust elections that will mean we can have a credible elected government.

Ahmed Shames: Yes, this is the kind of international interference that we want in Iraq. We want people who are not Iraqis to push for democracy in Iraq. This requires a belief in the necessity for success in Iraq for world peace. I’m afraid, unfortunately this belief does not exist amongst many westerners. They see Iraq as a foreign country that is very far away and they don’t really need to bother themselves with. But people need to believe that success in Iraq is success for the Middle East and for world security.

I want interference in Iraq if it means pushing for democracy and for elections to happen and human rights. We want that, when an Iraqi prisoner is mistreated by an Iraqi, the whole world talks about it and condemns it. We don’t want the outrage to end when the Americans leave, and when Iraqis are doing their own torture.

Sami Zubaida: Yes I agree with this, we need to see elections take place. We must not allow the “technocratic” administration that the United Nations helps instal become a means whereby Iraq can be blamed for failing to hold elections that America may not want.

Yousif al–Khoei: Yes. One problem is that there is a mass anti–globalisation, anti–American movement which doesn’t fully understand the complexities of Iraq. It’s highly ideological and has little credibility with the Iraqi people. The torture videos of Saddam’s interrogators did not generate the same reaction around the world or amongst these humanitarian protestors even though they are a hundred times worse than the torture committed by the Americans, bad as that is.

Maysoon Pachachi: Another important thing the international community should push for is a timetable for an American withdrawal . The government that is elected must have the absolute right to demand that their territory is vacated, including American bases.

Ahmed Shames: That has to be up to the Iraqi sovereign government.

Maysoon Pachachi: What I am saying is yes, elections, but not just elections. It’s elections and the end of an occupation.

Hayder al–Fekaiki: I think elections would be a great first step and its success is dependent on the active role of the international community, both the people who marched against the war and those who decided on the war. Everyone must follow their words with deeds. Elections would be great and marvellous start.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I agree with Maysoon. But let us remember that “American occupation” is different from “American presence” or “influence”. Let us be realistic and ask for the achievable. We should ask for the end of occupation on Iraqi terms, however, the American presence and influence will remain outside anyone’s control. Yet after elections a sovereign Iraqi government can deal with these issues more confidently and would be expected to agree mutually beneficial arrangements with the Americans. Therefore, it is the elections that we should all focus on.

The six Iraqi roundtable participants are: