Iraqi opposition goes for the heart

Three members of the Iraqi opposition movement showed up at Columbia University’s Political Union to make the case for war. They appealed to the hearts of the audience — a mainly sympathetic one — but unfortunately not the minds.
The speakers were:

  • Dr. Ala Fa’ik, vice president for the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, formerly of Baghdad and a member of the steering committee of the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice,
  • Qubad Talabany, the deputy U.S. Representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who works closely as a liaison with both the White House and Congress, and
  • Feisal al-Istrabadi, esq., a founding member of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, who is an activist on various humanitarian issues relating to Iraq. Istrabadi is also a member of the planning committee for the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, serving on its Transitional Justice and Democratic Principles working groups.

All three men told us that Saddam was wicked. All three gave a litany of evils that Saddam had inflicted on the people of Iraq. And all three made the case that Saddam should be removed because he’s a bad man. Jeffrey A. Klein, who writes for, summed it up best: “Saddam Hussein is one of the great criminals of our era. He has taken Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, and turned it into a giant concentration camp.”

There is no doubt about that, but are the “humanitarian issues,” as Istrabadi claimed, the best reason for going into Iraq? “The humanitarian reasons are stronger than the reasons for going into Kosovo,” Istrabadi told one questioner. “The United States missed an opportunity by focusing on the weapons of mass destruction instead.”

Talabany agreed: “Weapons of mass destruction and the terror ties are excellent reasons for overthrowing the Saddam regime,” he said, “But there are other reasons. Most important is the desire of my people to sow the seeds of democracy in the soil of the tyrant. The time has come to bring peace to Iraq. The time has come to liberate Iraq.”

As to arguments from anti-war activists that the looming Iraq war is “all about oil,” he said: “I do not believe the US and the coalition of the willing will go to war for oil. I do believe there are easier ways for these governments to get oil than to go to war. But Iraqis in Basra, Baghdad and Suleimanya don’t care why the U.S. wants to liberate them. If it’s oil, then so be it.”

Fa’ik, as a peace activist, called for a restoration of the “oneness” of Iraq, and claimed that throughout all its history, Iraq had been an open, tolerant society. “I studied my history very well,” he said. “You walk into the museum and go into the Mesopotamian exhibit and you will see my face there. I am Sumerian, I am Chaldean, I am Assyrian, I am Arab, I am Muslim. Iraq is an open society.

“We have to bring back that oneness of Iraq. We have to bring back what’s been broken by that regime.”

Of the three speakers, Fa’ik was the least credible, if only because of his rosy-eyed view of the history of Iraq. Iraq was ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, with tribal differences held in place by a combination of enlightened provincial rule and Turkish scimitars. After the British conquered it in 1915, it was a colonial state until 1958 when a coup brought Col. Qasim to power. Fa’ik’s vision of a peaceful, open Iraq is discredited even as recently as 1995 when the Kurds in the north fought a vicious civil war.

In essence, the speakers were begging the United States for liberation. The mood among the speakers and the audience, which was heavy with Arab and Iraqi students, was dark when the subject of France and Germany arose. The speakers also sought to reassure the audience that American troops would be welcomed.

“Rest assured that Iraqis will welcome an American military presence because they will be seen as liberators, not as occupiers,” said Talabany. “If there is any anti-American sentiment it will be because we felt you let us down in 1991.”

The occupation, he said, will be more like Italy after World War II rather than Germany or Japan — presumably, short and sweet. Now we know who the White House has been listening to as it makes its occupation plans.

“Overnight, Iraq will not transform into a functional democracy,” said Talabany. “But we have shown in the north that will proper resources you can give power to the people. And a free Iraq will be a major player in the Middle East and a reliable American ally. We will work to have an Iraq that will not be anti-Israel. We hope to have an Iraq that can play a constructive role in the international community. Upon liberation there will be an end to the war that the Ba’ath party has been waging on the people of Iraq.”

Istrabadi was perhaps the most dogmatic of the speakers. Laying out his points in his lawyerly way, he opened his part of the program with this:

  1. “There will be military action soon, by which I think by the first of March. Without it, there is no point in talking about democracy.”
  2. “If this regime survives, then the Kurds will not accept reintegration and they should not. If you believe in the territorial integrity of Iraq, you should act now.”
  3. “This war will target terror infrastructure of the regime, not the civilian one as in 1991.”

He then attempted to dispel the ideas that Iraq is the “Arab Yugoslavia,” liable to fall apart into warring tribes the moment Saddam is removed, an idea promoted by Peter W. Galbraith which he called “nonsense.”

“You have had too frequently in Iraq genocide and ethnic cleansing,” Istrabadi said. “But with one exception, there is not an example in the modern history of Iraq in which the Kurds rose to massacre the Arabs of a village or vice versa.”

What genocide had gone on had been committed by the central government against ethnic groups it believed were in revolt, he said. “This says Iraqis have a high sense of cohesiveness. Left to their own, they will be able to rebuild their country.”

His further made his case to act now and not wait for a coup or a change of Saddam’s heart by ripping apart Fa’ik’s vision of Iraq as one big happy family. “One of the reasons I feel it is necessary for the United States to intervene, is if there is a coup, blood will run in the streets of Baghdad as people take vengeance,” he said. “There is much vengeance to be had in Iraq after 35 years.”

Only the United States military can prevent that, he said. (On this he’s probably right.)

He went on to detail his vision of a transitional government. It would last two to three years at most, must provide immediate benefits to the people of Iraq, would hold municipal elections within six months and regional elections within another six months after that and begin immediate criminal prosecutions. The other duties must be to fulfill obligations to the U.N. regarding weapons of mass destruction, he said, and human rights agreements must be adhered to. “It’s critical to me that the transitional period not be seen as a final status,” he said. “I don’t think the transitional government should be the government that signs a peace treaty with Israel. That should be the permanent government.”

And most important, he said, the United Nations should not lift the sanctions. Instead, they should be suspended so that the transitional government doesn’t gain control of the country’s treasury and the permanent lifting of sanctions is an incentive to democratize.

“If you want to ensure the transitional figures do not become transitional in the Iraqi sense of the word — by that I mean lasting 40 years — you cannot hand over the purse strings of Iraq,” he said. “Saddam did not immediately rule by fear. He co-opted the elite during the 1960s and ’70s by drowning them in cash.”

The general consensus was that if protesters are anti-war, they are pro-Saddam, even if the protesters do not consider themselves so. One Saudi woman asked if the United States shouldn’t take the Arab street into account, especially considering that innocent Iraqis will die. Istrabadi said, as an Iraqi, he didn’t care what “some guy in Cairo” thought. Talabany said that people danced in the streets in Afghanistan when the Americans came. Fa’ik fully admitted to having a narrow view on the subject and only cared about Iraq.

Istrabadi deplored “collateral damage,” as he put it, but said it was a weak argument to say, “Innocent people will be die because of American bombs, so it is immoral to bomb.”

“People are dying now!” he replied.

Istrabadi and the others missed a key point, however. Throughout this evening, I heard them say several times, “The Iraqi people are all that matter.” Well, actually, the American people matter, too, since the Iraqi opposition is asking our soldiers — and possibly our civilians — to die for them. It matters very much what “some guy in Cairo” thinks because if he teaches his sons that the infidels came into Iraq and conquered it — and there will be people who think that regardless of how well it goes — those sons could come to New York and kill people here. Maybe with a subway bomb. Maybe with something worse. The “collateral damage” might not be limited to Baghdad, and blood will flow in the streets of New York, Washington, Chicago…

There are only two really valid reasons for America to take military action against another country and that is to protect the national interests of the United States and to protect the lives of American citizens. One can argue that invading Iraq will do both. One can also argue it will do neither. I fall into the latter camp and believe Fa’ik, Talabany and Istrabadi, as well-meaning as they are, as asking the United States to place its own citizens in danger from retributive terror attacks so that they can free themselves from Saddam. Liberty and democracy are worthy goals, and the United States should promote them, but at the expense of lives here at home? I’m not sure if I could support that.

But perhaps I could. As I wrote once before,

This cuts to the heart of my own ambivalence on the matter of Iraq. I don’t trust the Bush administration to act in any but the most venal, self-serving manner. I don’t believe in going to war and killing innocent people if there’s no greater goal than access to oil and some slippery geopolitical goal of “benign” hegemony that no one will admit to on the record. But if there were a real commitment to democracy and a free Iraq that was truly liberated not just from Saddam’s thuggery but from the United States’ ambitions as well, then I might just consider that something worth fighting for.

I have a great affection for the Kurds. I hope they find their independence and freedom. I really do. But like large swaths of the American public, I’m not convinced that the Bush White House is committed to a democratic Iraq. It is selling out the Kurds, has shut down pro-democracy radio stations and told Kuwaitis not to worry about a Shi’ite state.

Motivations matter when a country goes to war. Motivations — whether liberation or plunder — determine how the day after the war goes. What happens if Iraqis, hungry for liberation, find themselves under a petit-Saddam or a new Hashemite king backed up by Americans troops based in their country for decades?

Are we prepared to find out?

3 Comments on “Iraqi opposition goes for the heart”

  1. The humanitarian motive: has war hysteria fudged the real issues?

    Inevitably failing to keep the resolve to never mention the war again, here we go – there’s a key issue to the whole debate that’s actually quite interesting and close to what already observed ab…