1 August 2004

Wherever I go, people ask whether sovereignty actually returned to the Iraqis; and are the Americans leaving or staying. We as Arabs don't seem to have a view to help Iraqis regain their sovereignty. We don't talk to the Iraqis. Actually, my head is full of questions regarding Iraq. I personally was against the war, like 99% of you. When Baghdad was occupied, I refused to go at the time because it would have merely legitimized the occupation. But when the Americans signed 17 November accord and requested U.N. assistance to pave the way for an Iraqi takeover, it was not possible to say no. The purpose was helping the Iraqi people -- no other (personal) agenda. The work we did was in response to a written and acceptable demand (from both Americans and Iraqis). There were two main areas: arranging elections and holding a national conference. Elections could be held by next January if a national independent committee was formed to assist the U.N. in overseeing it. The conference is more complicated. There were elaborate debates about it. Internal complications within Iraqi society made the selection of its members as difficult as selecting a new government. If you brought in 500 members to the conference, you antagonized 400,000; if you selected 30 for the government, you irritated 500. That is why my idea was to have a government "acceptable" to the general public. A "legitimate" government would not be possible. The fact is that those selected were among the best. Some expected me to form the best cabinet in the Arab world. That is flattering though impractical, even illogical. I was not in a position to form a government of my own pleasure; because I was operating upon a written request by the Governing Council and the Americans. We listened to so many people. We overcame several basic obstacles. Religious parties were mainly sidelined. When we brought a majority of sectarian Shiites, the Sunnis had no problem. To be fair, there are 20 excellent individuals in this government. There are also six women -- which is not found in any other Arab country. The other proposal was related to the general conference, which I will not supervise but will follow up from New York as a U.N. adviser.

Now, settling the security issue in Iraq is not merely the presence of foreign troops, although such presence now is necessary. Providing security to people could only be done by Iraqi security forces. That is why it is essential to rebuild these forces. Their disbursement by the Americans was presumptuous. They thought it was easy to occupy the country but they admitted their mistake. A simplified view by the Americans widened the base of resistance to them. There are those "jehadists" who come from abroad from varied nationalities; there are the remnants of the previous regime; then there is a "nationalist resistance" -- groups who fight occupation and that is legitimate. I say that the third category -- nationalist resistance -- should be immediately absorbed. The government seems to be trying to do that. Prime Minister Allawi has an Arabist spirit. The Arabs should help him. They refer to C.I.A. Who is not C.I.A.? Particularly now that it is a progressive organization (Brahimi chuckles here). Extend your hands to those people. Help them. Naturally, the Americans would not have agreed to appoint someone against them. Their continued open and active presence, however, will provide a backlash. They have to -- and wanted to -- appoint Iraqis. (President) Ghazi Al-Yawar already claimed back the Presidential Palace.

On the risk of Iraq breaking down, I don't think the Americans want a civil war. I don't believe that George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, want a divided Iraq. Suppose they wanted to, why not help prevent it. We have to pre-empt that imaginary talk of fragmenting that country. Some Kurds may seek separation but their majority see no alternative to a united Iraq. Still, I spoke frankly to the Iraqis of all factions. I said, look, I come from Algeria and Lebanon. If someone had asked me I would not have predicted what happened as 150,000 were killed. Everyone in Lebanon I had met said war would not take place amongst Lebanese. No one woke up in the morning and said let's start a civil war. Yet it did. One incident here, one incident there and Lebanon was caught in a civil war. Now, the one who plants a bomb in a Shiite mosque, what does he want? A civil war. There are some extreme Moslem "salafist" (Al-Qaebi, Abu Mussab Zarqawi) who say Shiites are not only infidels but outlaws. How could we allow those people to pass through Iraq. Their purpose is to kill Shiites as well as Americans. If they have such plots we are expected not to just allow them to achieve it but to stop such plans. You ask me; but I don't know why the Americans invaded Iraq. All explanations given to me were unconvincing. A review of American policy will be conducted whoever wins the next U.S. election. It will include Iraq, the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. We in the Arab world should be ready for such a review with proposals of our own. There is no way to handle the danger of terrorism without solving the crisis in the region. Until now the U.S. Congress had not grasped the risks posed by Israeli occupation of Arab territories. Standing by your opinion is useful; it doesn't harm to stand up to what you believe -- to have a backbone. We Arabs have no backbone in our policy. If we blame the governments what about the peoples you are always talking of; where are our civic organizations, our youth groups?

Oh, back to Iraq. Let's hope the Cairo meeting of neighbouring states will develop specific proposals. It could be useful if there were regular meetings between these countries and permanent members of the Security Council to co-ordinate helpful action. Handling the situation is very difficult but not impossible. Chances of success are there but require Arabs to help the Iraqis to regain full sovereignty and achieve their national unity.

By the way, give my warmest regards to Ghassan Tueni ("An-Nahar" daily publisher) in Beirut.

[A chat in Damascus just after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad and visiting Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.]