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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: « Il faut fixer un calendrier pour le départ des troupes étrangères d’Irak »

by Interview conducted by Pierre Barbancey

« We Need to Establish a Schedule for the Departure of Foreign Troops from Iraq»

Translated Friday 24 November 2006, by Laura Wheeler

As Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology, Raïd Fahmi is also a member of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist party. Here, he comments on government actions, including what’s at stake from a political and security viewpoint, as well as the withdrawal of coalition armies.

HUMA: How do you assess Iraqi government action taken over the past six months?

RAÏD FAHMI: At the economic level, steps have been taken, and investments are planned for the safe zones of our country, but also for other regions. This will be a change from last year, when allocated funds were not able to be invested.

As for what’s been accomplished in terms of meeting people’s primary needs (transportation, water…) or in the security area, I’m afraid we’ve fallen short, particularly in the Baghdad and central region of Iraq.
On the other hand, we have made some progress towards establishing major governmental strategies. Especially at the political level, in that for over a year now, there is a national reconciliation initiative under way which was launched by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Getting the nation out of the difficult impasse we currently find it in, necessarily includes a reconciliation process. This involves enlarging the government’s political base and process so as to create conditions for reducing violence and isolating those who resort to arms.

This means integrating some of the groups who took up arms as a result of the poor decisions made by Paul Bremer (the American proconsul who was sent to Iraq immediately following the war, in April 2003 – editor’s note) or because of the behavior of the multinational forces who provoked reasonably negative reactions among the population. These groups are animated by a desire for a nation more than by a desire to restore Saddam Hussein’s regime or any other despotic potentate. These people can be integrated. Some contacts have already been established, and others are being made. We are still waiting to reap the benefits, but generally, the message is positive.

It’s important to also note the revision of the relationship between the multinational forces and the armed Iraqi forces. The Prime Minister, with the government’s blessing, has requested more power and authority for the Iraqi forces. This implies modifying UN resolutions 1546 and 1637.
This desire has been favorably received by most of the multinational forces. We now have better control over the Iraqi forces, with direct authority for recruitment and training. This process will continue to unfold as we approach the revision period of the United Nation’s resolutions (revisions should be made prior to December 31). Reinforcing the military and security capacities of the Iraqi State would in turn accelerate the timing for withdrawal of foreign forces in our country.

HUMA: Aren’t you being very optimistic, in that a certain number of forces within the government presented their candidacy based on their religious beliefs, as opposed to the secular list you once belonged to? There are those who maintain a sectarian position, and those – sometimes the same people – who own the militias. How do you hope to resolve this contradiction?

RAÏD FAHMI: True, there are indeed political groups who have largely based their programmes and actions on their religious or sectarian identities. But I think that we must take the problems in their entirety. There’s the one you have referred to, but we have other conflicts which pit the majority of the population (who are interested in the change brought about by the fall of the dictatorship) against those who hope to restore the former regime or to set up a fundamentalist regime, or against mafia-type gangs who only want to spread chaos.
It’s not possible to make systematic progress across the range of questions at any given moment.

Our struggle is interspersed with sectarian and internal conflict which sometimes divides the very groups who could benefit from the reunification process. There are also contradictions between these groups and those who are opposed to the process.

Lastly, there is the national dimension, which should create the conditions leading to withdrawal of foreign forces. Government strategy is oriented in this direction. The fact that we are applying decisions made could solicit negative reactions from certain groups, but that’s part of the political process.

It’s possible to overcome these problems. Regarding the militias, for instance, everyone agrees that we need to implement the law for disbanding them. The tricky part is agreeing on the cadence for applying these strategies, and whether they should be carried out by dialogue, by force, or rather by dialogue combined with force.

HUMA: The government has adopted a firm stance…

RAÏD FAHMI: Yes. We have had discussions with Moktada Sadr about his Mahdi army. He has agreed to denounce a number of his intermediate military officials, has condemned their actions, and has formally distanced himself from them. This is very important because it means that Moktada is ready to support government actions when it takes repressive action against groups practicing kidnappings and assassinations, or who are trying to stir up sectarian conflicts.

That said, we are facing a double conflict: against the evil alliance made up of former partisans of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and other, fundamentalist groups who employ the most barbarous terrorist techniques. And then there is the sectarian conflict that certain people are trying to build into civil-war proportions.

The characteristics of these two conflicts are very distinct, albeit superposed, which can be confusing. We’d like to re-establish the demarcation lines. There is a clearly defined line between the forces who would like to put the scars of the dictatorship firmly behind us and move towards a pluralist and democratic state. And there are those who group behind ideologic banners, whether religious or nationalist, with a pretext of fighting the occupation, but with a hidden, dictatorial agenda.
Today, this line is not as clear as it once was. Sectarian conflict, which cuts across Iraqi society vertically, slashing along personal, sectarian and ethnic llines, sometimes allows other forces to perpetrate conflict and muddle the entire process. It’s a major political issue.

HUMA: Given such conditions, what can federalism mean in Iraq?

RAÏD FAHMI: Parliament voted a law for defining the terms for creating federal regions. Federalism is a principle which was recognized in the Constitution and voted by 12 million Iraqis. The law consists in establishing technical clauses. These clauses were negotiated by the entire range of political parties. We introduced changes to the first project proposed by the Alliance regrouping the Chiite Islamic forces. They give more guarantees that the regional definitions truly correspond to people’s best interests. We introduced the clauses so that all regions will conform to the people’s wishes, specifically with an obligation of obtaining 50% approval votes for any project or modification. Therefore, from a legal viewpoint, Iraq should not be divided along sectarian lines.
Sectarian problems and divisions do present a risk.

The political process fell apart somewhat after the Samara mosque attack last February, followed by the wave of retaliatory and sectarian strikes. These retaliations continue, particularly in Baghdad and in zones where various communities coexist. This is a danger which weighs heavily on the country and its political life. We are aware of this.

It’s possible to defeat all these actions which aim to push the country towards chaos, because it’s in no one’s interest for the country to be divided. Not for the Kurds, since that could jeopardize what advantages the people have managed to achieve, nor for the Shiites who make up a majority in the country, so it would make no sense for them to content themselves with a single region. As for the Sunnites, one group announced the division of Iraq via the creation of an Islamic emirate linked to Al Qaeda!

Thus, there is no real alternative to the process of national reconciliation and of economic development in order to overcome sectarian and ethnic divisions.

HUMA: How does the Iraqi government, with its avowed objective of ending the occupation, intend to achieve the departure of foreign troops in light of the fact that the United States refuses to give the least schedule for withdrawal? It’s rumoured that major American military bases have been built and will endure, even in the event of the departure of military forces. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine the United States withdrawing purely and simply from the region.

RAÏD FAHMI: Regarding the withdrawal of military forces, the Iraqi government’s approach is quite clear. We think that it’s not possible to call for an immediate withdrawal. The country is united on this front. Even political forces from the Sunnite community are firmly opposed to immediate withdrawal of the multinational forces, for reasons of national security.

But there is also a large majority of the population who agree that it’s impossible to call for an unmodified continuation of the presence of multinational forces. These troops are here by virtue of UN resolutions 1637 and 1546 as well as a number of letters exchanged between two former Prime Ministers: Allaoui et Al Jaafari.

We have publicly expressed the fact that we are no longer satisfied with these conditions today. Furthermore, negotiations are unde way with the multinational forces to review their conditions and their presence, and in particular, their authority, and their relationship with each other and with the Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi government recommends that the Iraqi armed forces be primarily responsible for the country’s security. If the Iraqi forces need support from the multinational forces, it should be the Iraqis who ask for help, rather than the current situation where there are limits and constraints imposed on them by virtue of the above-mentioned resolutions. This should be formalized when the question of the authority of the multinational forces will be discussed in December.
Nevertheless, this will not provide a definitive response with regards to the withdrawal date of the multinational forces. The principle of a withdrawal schedule has been accepted by the government. But this schedule has two prerequisites. We must establish a schedule for developing the capacities of Iraqi military forces, for increasing such capacities, and for the gradual transfer to the Iraqi forces of security files pertaining to the various Iraqi provinces.

Similarly, the timing of the withdrawal of the multinational forces must be accelerated. This dual calendar should provide an acceptable solution for the population and will correspond to our desire to establish a withdrawal plan for foreign armies in Iraq.

HUMA: How long will this process last?

RAÏD FAHMI: That’s not been established yet. The Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, estimates that two to three years should be adequate, whereas the Americans are talking about a year and a half. At this point, we can say that the maximum period for withdrawal should not surpass three years.

As for the military bases, the Iraqi government has not yet dealt with this question. Once the question has been raised, it will be up to the Iraqi parliament to decide. It will no doubt provide a subject for open and controversial public debate.

From our perspective, as part of the PCI, but also as a member of the majority wing of the government, what we want is a federal, democratic, united and independent Iraq. Our desire is to re-establish full sovereignty for the country. This objective is clear. We don’t want anything on Iraqi territory that could jeopardize this sovereignty.

What we need, is for those who support the independence of Iraq, and this country’s development, wherever they may be in the world, to express their solidarity for those who are fighting for these objectives. Unfortunately, stances have been taken by some of these forces which play in favor of political currents which are opposed to democracy. On the one hand, they talk about democracy and secularism, but in fact, they take positions which weaken, rather than reinforce the democratic and progressive trends in the country.

It’s possible to establish a frank and sincere dialogue with the range of progressive forces, in Iraq and throughout the world, in a mutually respectful manner. This should be done with a view to achieving our shared goal for a peaceful, independent, unified and federal Iraq.
We totally assume our choices and our politics because our primary responsibility is to the Iraqi population.

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