The way forward

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

BAGHDAD-- It has been my privilege to preside over the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) during a month of momentous events. We now have an agreement for the transfer of authority between the Coalition, the liberators, and the IGC, the representatives of the liberated Iraqis. President Bush has outlined an inspiring vision for a free and democratic Middle East. Our American friends are resolutely striking back at the vicious remnants of Saddam's regime and damaging the network of Baathists and foreign Islamists attempting to destroy the Iraqi experiment in democracy. Yet these gains could easily be forfeited if we Iraqis do not bear the brunt of the fighting.

The enemies of Iraqi freedom are not "resistance," a word that evokes the heroism of Poles in the Second World War, nobly battling their occupiers. Nor can those who murder our American liberators, Red Cross workers, U.N. officials and Italian policemen be termed "guerrillas." Rather, they are terrorists. They are the thugs and torturers who repressed their fellow Iraqis during the last 35 years, the perpetrators of genocide, men who butchered hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Shiite Arabs. The creation of an anti-democratic fascist counter-revolution of Baathists and foreign Islamic volunteers, some of whom are al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam, is a classic unholy Middle Eastern alliance. These people have more support among the Arab media and in the studios of al-Jazeera than they do in Iraq.

The significance of this wave of terrorism is not military, but political. On the battlefield the terrorists are losing. But the terrorists have grasped something that too few in the U.S. will admit: that Iraq is now the central front both in the war against terrorism and the struggle for a better Middle East. The terrorists will not stop fighting if the U.S. troops are withdrawn, rather they will become emboldened to believe that they can win this conflict.

Only the U.S. was capable of toppling Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, a brilliantly executed campaign in which the Kurdish guerrillas, the peshmerga, were the only Iraqis to take casualties fighting with the Coalition. The defeat of the terrorists, however, must be largely an Iraqi endeavour. By taking up arms and routing the terrorists, Iraqis will own their new democracy-- nobody will be able to say that it has been handed to them.

Two measures must be taken so that Iraqis can fight side by side with your brave GIs. First, we need to use existing Iraqi patriotic forces. There are over 60,000 peshmerga who have fought alongside the Coalition and who are keen to contribute. We accept the sensitivities that preclude using Kurdish troops in Arab areas. However, the peshmerga can be used to provide backup and guard facilities, as well as protect the borders of our country, thereby freeing up Iraqi forces for operations in the Sunni Triangle.

Second, the new Iraqi army, police and intelligence services must be trained by the Coalition and dedicated to defending democracy. Resurrecting the former Iraqi army is not an option. The Iraqi army had a record of internal repression and external aggression. L. Paul Bremer, the Coalition's administrator, demonstrated great wisdom when he formally wound up the Iraqi army. Like the Allied decree in 1946 that dissolved Prussia, the edict abolishing the Iraqi army struck at the roots of the Arab nationalist militarism that plagued Iraq even before Saddam.

Those advocating the recall of the former Iraqi army are propounding the "stability first" policy that President Bush rejected with his Nov. 6 speech. The Iraqi peoples were victims of the "stability" imposed by the Iraqi army. All patriotic Iraqis will have been heartened when President Bush said that "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe-- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." Our battle against the terrorists will be long and painful, but while we fight we will continue to rebuild. Iraq is often falsely described as a mess, even a quagmire. Yet seven months after liberation, Iraq is making impressive progress by any standard. It is a testament to the determination of all of Iraq's peoples, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrians alike, that they have persevered in the face of a merciless terrorist campaign.

What is happening in Iraq is not, however, the restoration of normality, because in Saddam's Iraq there was no such thing. Rather, it is a courageous and necessary attempt to create the basic elements of a decent, democratic society in a place where human dignity was relentlessly crushed under foot. Iraqi Kurdistan's experience of self-government, tolerance and civil-society building over the last 12 years is now being extended to the whole of Iraq. In Baghdad today, there are scores of newspapers and nearly as many political parties. For the first time in 35 years the basic issues facing Iraq can be loudly debated in public rather than fearfully whispered behind closed doors. Iraq today is a success. It was Iraq under Saddam that was a "mess," where mass graves were "normality." Critically, Iraq is finally benefiting from its own resources. Under Saddam, Iraq gave cheap oil to the region to buy influence, while wasting oil revenues on arms and palaces. So while oil production is still below prewar levels, our net oil revenues are probably higher now that Baathist waste has been eliminated.

Most of Iraq is now peaceful. Iraqi Kurdistan and largely Shiite Arab southern Iraq have suffered relatively little violence. The localized terrorist problem in the Sunni Arab "triangle" and parts of Baghdad should not deter foreign investors. Rather they should build on the success of the Madrid donors' conference. Entrepreneurs and foreign lenders, such as the World Bank, should begin operating in Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq. Some foreign firms have already teamed up with Iraqi enterprises to reconstruct Iraq. They know that Iraq is ripe for foreign investment and development. Iraq needs to attract foreign investment to create the private-sector jobs that our state-enterprise dominated economy so desperately needs.

The terrorists want our bid for democracy to fail, just as the same terrorists attempted in recent years to undermine self-rule in Iraqi Kurdistan. The courage of the U.S. and Britain in liberating Iraq was a blow to the negative forces in the Middle East, to the Arab chauvinism and Islamist radicalism that so murderously combined to commit the atrocity of September 11. These terrorists know that if they are defeated in Iraq, then they will be defeated everywhere, but that if they can make the U.S. stumble or lose its nerve in Iraq, then their cause is not yet lost. It is for Iraqis to prove them wrong.

Jalal Talabani is the current president of the Iraq Governing Council and secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. This column was published Nov. 20 in The Wall Street Journal.

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