Mark Finkelstein | Correspondent | Monday, November 13, 2006
"Iraqis want to assume the lead in the defense of the security of the country," Salih said. "This is something that should be celebrated. But I think we will need American military support for some time to come."
From his perspective as an Iraqi government official, Salih admitted that the current strategy in Iraq is "not working fast enough" for the Iraqis or for the United States. "Unless the natives of the land take charge, be responsible and defend the interests of the nation, the United States cannot help us," he said. He sees the U.S. role as helping Iraqis help themselves.
Salih repeated that an abrupt U.S. troop withdrawal "would be utterly disastrous," but he also said he doesn't think that will happen.
"The pain and frustration that many Americans feel about Iraq is understandable...The reality of the situation is that Iraq is going through a very, very tough transition. If anything, this has been tougher than we expected," he said.
"The stakes are very high here. I think it's fair to say that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis reject the violence...they want to utilize the resources of their country and live in a democracy. We have tasted freedom, we have witnessed freedom, and despite the violence, despite the difficulties . . . we would not be willing to go back under the old dictatorship."
On the other hand, Salih said, the Iraqis must be realistic about the fact that things are getting worse in certain areas, including security and politics. He suggested that "extremists" are taking advantage of the situation to undermine the influence of moderates.
"The extremists will come [into the political fold] in a genuine way only if they know that there will be consequences to their extremism," Salih said.
"The crisis has reached a critical level, in my opinion, and we cannot do business as usual," he said, referring to the daily toll of internal Iraqi bloodshed. "How can one accept this?" he asked. "There has to be a change."
Salih said extremist forces are trying to push Iraq into all-out civil war, and he predicted that in the next few weeks, the Iraqi government will have to make some very serious choices: "All political parties and all those who are in government [must adopt] a genuine, united position against terrorism, against militias." He said it's time for the Iraqi government to take action against lawlessness rather than just "talk about it."
As for the Democrats' takeover of Congress in the U.S. midterm election, Salih indicated it won't make much difference as far as Iraq is concerned.
"During my last trip to Washington I met with the senior leadership of the Democratic Party in the Senate and the House, and we had some very serious discussions, and I listened very intently to what they had to say." Salih said the Democrats "recognize the vitality of Iraq, the importance of Iraq, and that Iraq cannot be lost to terrorists. And I'm sure at the end of the day, American democracy, as it has done so many times as well, will be able to come up with the right formula.
"The political season is over. The political leaders of both parties and, of course, the president of the United States all share the same objective in making a success in Iraq and ensuring that Iraq is peaceful and secure."
Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Salih said it's no longer possible to disengage from the rest of the world. "We are dealing with global terrorism," he said. "The streets of Baghdad impact security in the United States and Europe."
Salih rejected the notion, advanced by many Democrats, that the Iraq war has radicalized America's enemies: "September 11th happened before the Iraq war," he noted. "The radicalization of some of these Muslim societies happened long, long before the Iraq war. And there is an extremist, bigoted agenda, in the name of Islam, that wants to pit the Middle East against the West and the United States."
Salih said he can understand U.S. frustration about the lack of progress in Iraq and the growing number of casualties there, but he said he's hopeful that "at the end of the day, most American politicians and leaders recognize the imperative of success in Iraq."
He called it unfortunate that the media tends to focus only on negative news in Iraq.
"Today I was with the governor of Anbar [province]," Salih said. He said 160 construction projects are in the works, despite the intense fighting that has taken place in Fallujah. "People forget about the progress -- the good news stories," he said. "Many of the provinces in the south are really moving along. Some of these good stories are not being told."
Salih rejected the partitioning of Iraq into three ethnic regions, an idea that has been advanced by some Democrats, including Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who said he plans to run for president in 2008.
"To be fair to Sen. Biden, he has spoken of about decentralization and federalism -- a loose federation," said Salih, a former prime minister of the Kurdistan region.
He noted that Iraqi leaders have agreed that Iraq could become a federal system. "Perhaps Kurdistan, because of its non-Arab character, could have a greater degree of autonomy," he said. "These are matters that we discuss among ourselves as Iraqis and see what is the best for our country."
Salih called central control of Iraq a "bad idea" that has failed. "It's a recipe for disaster," he said "It's a recipe for the resurrection of tyranny and dictatorship. We cannot afford to allow that ever to happen again."
Salih said that he and every other Kurd "dreams of independence."
"Even I, Barham Salih, now deputy prime minister of Iraq, [I always] question why the Kurds were given such a lousy deal by history and geography. I would like to have my independent Kurdistan. I would like Kurdistan to be a member of the United Nations.
"Why not?" he asked, noting that the Arabs have "so many countries." "Why should the Kurds [be] the largest nation in the world, some 13 million Kurds, not to have a nation as such?
"But life is not just about moaning and complaining," he added. "Life is about delivering for your people. I think, and I genuinely say so, that most Kurds would like to give Iraq a chance. Iraq -- a democratic Iraq, a federal Iraq -- could provide the Kurds the country we never had." He said being part of a democratic Iraq could "protect Iraqi Kurds from some of the other problems that are out there."
"Most Kurds would be willing to give Iraq a chance," he said.
Salih envisions an Iraq that will "transcend the ethnic box, the sectarian box." He said he knows such a thing is possible, even if it won't be easy to achieve.
"But we will be helping ourselves and helping the region and helping the rest of the world if we succeed. And God forbid if we fail, it's going to be a very, very difficult situation."
Salih said Americans should understand that building a democracy is not easy, and while it is Iraq's responsibility to do so, "we cannot do it alone."
"This is much bigger than Iraq itself," Salih said. And while success will be difficult to achieve, it is possible, he said. "But failure here is going to be catastrophic."
Salih said he reminds himself every day -- despite the frustrations and difficulties -- that "we have a of building a new nation on the ashes of tyranny and Saddam's dictatorship. "The difficulties of the day, though they are very tough and very painful, pale in comparison to the tyranny that we had to endure under Saddam Hussein," he said.
"The United States came here to help us overcome Saddam Hussein's tyranny. We are grateful for that. Many of us are grateful -- the overwhelming majority of Iraqi society. You gave us the greatest gift of all, and that is freedom. But we have a long way to go before we can build a nation that we deserve and the world deserves. It's going to be tough.
"We have to succeed, and we should always remember that failure is not an option here."
(Mark Finkelstein is reporting for Cybercast News Service from Baghdad and Fallujah.)
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