«There is greater political freedom but less personal security»
Bessma Momani talks to Ernesto Pagano 23 July 2010

Recreating social cohesion seems to be an essential element in rebuilding Iraq. Has any progress been made?

I do not think there have been many positive results in terms of social cohesion. The Iraqi people do not live what could be described as normal lives. Of course, far fewer people are killed nowadays, but social relations have been seriously compromised.

Has national identity been compromised too?

National identity has always been an unsolved issue, from the monarchy to the advent of the Baath Party. Before everything rotated around Baghdad. Now instead there is an extremely decentralised constitution, as are other Iraqi institutions, to the extent that giving a national identity is almost in contradiction with the very organisation of the country.

So Saddam Hussein had at least the “merit” of having kept Iraq united…

Of course, the country was more united, even in spite of the tension and repression inflicted by the government. One cannot say that the process followed to acquire unity was fair, but the result was a united and centralised Iraq. Today the country is divided into three regions, each in conflict with the other. Certain minorities are not even mentioned in the constitution; if one is Armenian or Chaldean, one is simply ignored by the constitution.

Speaking of the material reconstruction; the country is still lacking basic infrastructures such as water and electricity…

In truth it is paradoxical. This is meant to be the second largest producer of oil in the world, but people have a standard of living comparable to that in the poorest countries on the planet.

How do you explain this paradox?

Part of the problem is linked to the fact that Iraq has not been able to attract foreign investments for reconstruction. The other problem involves the ‘brain drain.’ Engineers and other professional people have left the country. Building basic infrastructures requires technical knowledge that Iraq has been deprived of since the Nineties. The damaged pipelines, electricity plants in need of rebuilding all require funding and know-how in equal measures.

What kind of Iraq are the American troops leaving behind?

One should ask the Iraqis. It is true they have greater political freedom, but the rest of their lives has totally deteriorated. There is far less personal freedom. You can express your opinion, but then you are unable to freely go out without placing your personal security at risk.

Hence a freedom of expression almost as an end unto itself…

Iraqi journalists are now allowed to say whatever they wish. Once they have said what they wish, however, no one can guarantee their safety. The same applies to political freedom of expression. In a country in which there have never been a democratic tradition, this “freedom” can have very controversial effects. It is not much use if there is no balance between political freedom and political education.

What are the greatest mistakes made by the White House?

Many are convinced that the greatest mistake was the de-Baathification, which resulted not only in disbanding the army, but also removing from the public sector – at the time the largest employer – all Sunnis belonging to the Baath Party. The problem is that under Saddam’s regime one had to be a party member to be employed. The same applied to teachers and even garbage collectors. Reducing this mass of people to unemployment, with no prospect of becoming integrated in the current state, means then finding them in the movements fighting against the occupation.

Have President Obama’s policies been very different to those of his predecessor?

The only thing that makes him different to Bush is that he has at least managed to speak delicately to the Iraqis and to other people in the Middle East. I believe that for Obama the most important issue remains Iran. One must remember that Iraq is isolated from the other countries in the Gulf and this has encouraged the government in Baghdad to look to Tehran in search of a strategic ally. The Obama Administration should try and mediate with Iran, but this is becoming increasingly difficult above all because, with the mid-term elections only a few months away, Congress expects Obama to use strong-arm tactics with Tehran.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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