What Do Iraqis Want?
|Wednesday, February 3,2010 22:42|
|By Abbas J. Ali|
Despite warnings from friends who reside in Iraq, I recently traveled to the war-torn country after almost 30 years of absence. Though there were signs of life and dynamism, these were subsumed by the obvious sadness and anguish that were deeply ingrained on the faces of the people. However, in spite of the frequent security blockades and the Iraqis’ appearance of apathy toward events around them, one could not miss noticing that Iraqis on the street still carefully guard a cherished old Iraqi quality; a sense of hopefulness.
It is this spirit that has enabled Iraqis to endure, despite years of hardship under Saddam Hussein, devastating wars, and foreign invasions. Some who could not tolerate what their beloved country has gone through and were troubled by the widespread destruction and chaos have chosen to leave the country. The majority, who remain, in their daily struggles, daringly reaffirm that Iraq is alive and will ultimately overcome its unfortunate setbacks.
In recent days, newspapers have focused on the banning by the Committee of Integrity and Accountability of 500 potential candidates from running in March 7 elections. Both Vice President Biden and Ambassador Christopher Hill have met with senior members of the Iraqi government and the leaders of parliament and informed them of their disapproval of a court ruling disqualifying Baathist politicians from running for election.
In Washington, too, politicians and newspapers have debated the possible withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and its potential impact on security and the American interests in the region. President Obama’s assertion in his State of the Union Address that "all combat troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this August will spur more opposition to the withdrawal proposal." The neoconservatives and their propagandists fear that a withdrawal will enable Iraqis to chart a political path independent of Washington’s dictates.
Likewise, the Washington elite have been lobbying the Iraqi government and the leaders of parliament to aggressively open the Iraqi energy sector to foreign corporations and to accelerate reconciliation with members of the former Baath Party. It has been argued that both will help the country to regain political and economic stability. Iraqis have no quarrel with setting the stage for an economically prosperous and democratically thriving Iraq. They question, however, the motives of their American counterparts.
I met former schoolmates, friends, university professors, politicians, and ordinary people. These were Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrians, Muslims and Christians; people from the south, central, and northern parts. They share a yearning for safety and independence, openness, and active participation in the building of their country. Stated differently, all want to reclaim their dignity.
These Iraqis believe that without dignity they will not be able to solve their internal problems and defeat their formidable enemies, especially terrorists from neighboring countries. For them, Iraq under current conditions is an easy prey for everyone and this very reason impedes the country’s progress and keeps it from moving forward.
In numerous conversations, subjects concerning the presence of foreign troops, the constitution, and the economic downturns surfaced time and again. Though all Iraqis feel that the removal of Saddam was the end of a heavy nightmare, they agree that the failure to let Iraqis immediately take charge of their own future was an unfortunate move.
Iraqis across ethnicity and religious affiliations are proud people, spontaneous, and cosmopolitan. The occupation wounded their pride and fueled their resentment and indifference. The current presence of foreign troops conveys to them that they are incapable of governing their country and are unable to function without foreign assistance. This stands against the very nature of Iraqi social upbringing and historical fact.
The occupation has brought to Iraq mass deaths, the destruction of economic, health, and educational institutions, and environmental catastrophes, all which steadily intensified with the Washington-led effort in 1991 to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The presence of foreign troops signifies to Iraqis the continuation of their tragedies and nightmares.
The present Washington-inspired constitution paralyzes the function of the government, and for many Iraqis it is the source for stoking sectarian and ethnic misunderstanding. All Iraqis that I met argued that there must be an end to the duality of governing. The president and his two vice presidents should not rival the premier. Their responsibilities must be similar to those found in modern parliamentary systems.
Likewise, the Iraqis that I met voiced their concerns that a simple rather than two-third majority parliamentary vote may help solve frequent political stalemate and minimize useless bickering. Furthermore, they feel that the constitutional sanctioning of sectarian and ethnic allocation of top jobs not only hinders the functioning of the government but transforms them into hostile and dysfunctional units.
Iraqis understand that their government and Washington constantly pour money into the market. Salaries are hundreds of times higher than what they used to be under Saddam Hussein. However, Iraq, which used to have a vibrant agricultural base, now is importing almost every essential item for the survival of the society including tomatoes and cucumbers. Worse, the construction sector which used to produce all its country’s building materials locally is now importing even bricks and cement.
Rebuilding the Iraq economy requires that entrepreneurs and business people venture outside neighborhoods and are confident that their government is capable of ensuring their safety and protecting their investments. Since 2003, the entrepreneurs’ movements have been confined primarily to their immediate localities. Realizing a thriving economy necessitates a free movement of personnel and capital across the country. In an environment of fear, entrepreneurs are either driven out of the country or resign from active economic involvement.
Instead of curtailing Iraqi independent action and constantly interfering and dictating Iraqi politics, the Obama administration must respect the Iraqis’ quest for liberty and freedom. The Administration faces a formidable domestic agenda and mounting challenges abroad and it may find that listening to the Iraqi people and supporting their pursuit for a functional and capable central government could be exceptionally rewarding. This is a window of opportunity that must not be lost.
Abbas J. Ali
Professor and Director School of International Management
Indiana University of Pennsylvania