Transcript: Q&A with Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion

Partial transcript of Q&A with Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 21, 2013:

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
…Let’s talk a little about Sunni politics. There’ve been some pretty large demonstrations there over the past several months. What are the chances that the current state of Sunni frustration, anger, overall sense of disenfranchisement will spill into something more violent and destabilizing in your view?

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
Well, it’s already spilling out into violence. We hear every few days of explosions, of acts of terrorism that are taking place. I think they’re not totally disconnected from the general dissatisfaction of the populace – not only of the Sunni. I think there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst the Iraqis.

But I just you to know – to elaborate on that – get back to the mindset of the government… I agree totally with Ambassador Crocker’s assessment of the way al-Maliki thinks but I would like to add to it the fact that Iraq is a tiered state. Whoever controls the resources, controls the system of patronage that builds the power structure.

In a state like the United States, you know, the population pays taxes and therefore the government is accountable, and that structure is not there in Iraq.

Oil – whoever seizes oil, seizes power. So I think that is a major factor conditioning the mentality of the group that rules. They get their hands on that and they will not let that go.

Now, coming back to the Sunni. The Sunnis – I remember growing up in a country where these sectarian divisions were not really at all almost relevant. I mean, we didn’t know who was Sunni, who was Shia in many cases.

But this – with the sectarian policies of Saddam’s regime and the oppression he imposed upon the Shia, the Kurds – this sense of being persecuted was strong amongst the Shia. When the opportunity came, there was a segment amongst their leaders – particularly the Islamists – who were thinking, “Now we’ve got it, we will never let it go. It’s going to be a Shia government.”

Now that put the Sunnis – even those who are not sectarian – in a rather difficult position. And you remember in the early days they boycotted the political process. That didn’t work. So they then joined it. And that is not working. So they are now “in a very difficult position.”

They don’t want to go to the extreme where Al Qaeda is because they themselves were victims of Al Qaeda. And at the same time, they are being marginalized and being treated as second class citizens. So their position is extremely difficult.

But I must say that their general dissatisfaction is part of a much wider dissatisfaction among the Iraqi population. You talk to any Iraqi at the moment – almost any Iraqi – and they will feel that, you know, there are no services, there’s no security, there’s no progress, there are no jobs – “Where on Earth are we going?”

The country is – seems to be in this situation where it’s not moving at all.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
…Look at Iraq more broadly in the Arab world. Ambassador Sumaida’ie, we’re more than a year on – two years on – from the start of the Arab Spring. Iraq has a large border with Iran but also borders Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and is a player in the Arab world. Help us understand how the Maliki government sees its relationship with the broader Arab world at the moment, and how its neighbors beyond Iran and Syria, which we’ve talked about, view Iraq today.

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
Back in 2003, the days of the governing council, the first senior delegation that was received from outside Iraq was not from an Arab country – it was from Iran. There was a kind of denial amongst the Arabs that what the Americans did did actually take place. In some quarters in the Gulf region, there is a kind of phobia of Shia and that played into that situation, particularly exacerbated by the fact that Shia political parties themselves looked at this as an opportunity to seize power in Iraq as Shia and not as Iraqis. So there as this fear from both sides feeding on it – on each other. The Iranians proved to be very adept and they moved swiftly, they utilized their investment in the Shia Islamist parties who were nurtured in Iran during the Saddam period and therefore built very close relationships with the leaders of the Islamic Republic. And they never looked back from that.

Now, coming back to the Arabs. The more they see of this, the more estranged they become from the new Iraq. Iraq has traditionally been, as you have astutely said, an Arab country in its identity – not looked at itself, certainly not part of the Persian history, but as an Arab country with a proud history – a proud Arab history. But there’s another layer now, which is the layer of sectarianism, which has been struggling with the layer of nationalism. So at the popular level, there’s one sentiment, but at the political level amongst the leaders of the Islamist parties, there’s a different kind of sense. And therefore, as we progress from 2003 into the turbulent years of 2006 and 2007, the other Arab countries started to point at the chaos and said “Here is failure. It’s all because of the Iranians and American’s mismanagement” and we never seem to – it was very hard to get Iraq back into its Arab niche. We got Iraq back fairly quickly into the Arab League but it remained a kind of work in progress; it never really integrated back. So that is where things stand. There is a recognition that Iraq should be part of the Arab fold but there is a tension between that, in that sense, and the sense that Iraq is close to Iran at the moment and that Iranian influence is very apparent both at the macro level and the micro level within the political echelons ruling Iraq at the moment.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
Ambassador Sumaida’ie, how do Iraqis view the state of the relationship with the United States today?

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
If you ask any individual Iraqi, you might get two different answers. [Laughter] So when you ask all Iraqis, you can imagine the spectrum. Iraqis are conflicted about their attitude towards the United States.

Right from the beginning, some saw the intervention by the United States a threat and some saw it as a salvation.

Those who saw salvation later found that they were disappointed in many respects. So there were shifts even in the perceptions of individual attitudes to this.

But I think broadly, most of the – especially the enlightened population – everybody is glad and grateful that Saddam’s regime was removed. That’s for sure. They were for the first time free to speak their minds. All this were huge, huge gains for the Iraqis.

But these were quickly smothered by lots of problems that came in the wake of this emancipation. At the government level, we went through all the negotiations, all the agreements, and the strategic framework agreement is still in place.

But I think it would not be wrong to say that the Iraqi government as such at the moment does not see the American presence or influence as an integral part of its political calculation. It was a few years ago when political decisions were taken, they always factored in what the Americans thought and that was certainly true. You probably remember when you were Ambassador back then. I don’t think that’s the situation now.

I would even venture to say that there is more weight for what the Iranian regime thinks about political decisions in Iraq, whether it’s forming a cabinet or any other major political decision.

But that doesn’t mean that the Americans have lost all possible influence. I think that Americans still have considerable amount of soft power. I think they should use it not only with the government – and they are using it, to be fair – but in support of civil society. I think supporting the segment of population who are secular in their outlook, who believe the separation of religion from the state is a salvation of the country. Iraq is a natural ally of the United States – not the Islamist party.

So I think there should be more support for the politics of secularism in Iraq. After all, the Iranians are supporting the Islamists, which are much more in harmony with their ideology. It would not be wrong – in fact, I would say it is necessary and highly desirable for the Americans to support their natural allies, which I happen to believe represent the future of Iraq and I, myself, am part of…

So there is this conflict, and this conflict is not resolved. All the balls are in the air. The outcome of this would depend on how much investment the United States is prepared to put in to help nurture the right factors to get Iraq moving in the right direction. And if they fail – well, it would be very unfortunate but people who would pay the price would be the Iraqis and I think also to some extent American interests in the region.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
How else should the U.S. recalibrate that relationship?

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
Well, I think that it is possible to have a two-prong relationship even with the government. Say we will support you but we will not support oppressive actions. We will support you but we will not accept human rights violations. We will support the political process and the political system as long as it actually serves the principles on which it was built.

Let me make a very important point at this juncture. At the beginning when we were writing the law…and later on when the Constitution was negotiated, there was this assumption that the players are going to abide by the rules, which are written. This assumption was wrong. The Islamists had no intention of abiding. They went along but as soon as they got into power they started flouting the rules. Blatantly. I mean, it was explicitly stated in the Constitution that there are certain institutions which were independent of the executive. The Electoral Commission, Central Bank – I was the governing counsel when the law of the Central Bank was issued and it was made clear that it was independent of the government. You know, there were several media. I was head of the media committee and we start to structure a media commission, which was intended and designed to be independent. Now, all these have been reined in under the auspices and the control of the Prime Minister’s office on the basis that well, these have some executive function – all these institutions have some executive functions and therefore they should be part of the executive, using sort of the semantic definition.

Now that really means a kind of hijacking of the power of all these institutions, which are the guardians of the democratic system. And once these have gone, then what safeguards do we have for this democracy?

So the Americans should make it clear where they stand on these issues. The fact that general perception in Iraq is that Maliki’s in power because both the Iranians and the Americans want him to be there. That should be dispelled – should be clear that the Americans are committed to the Iraqi political system, not to an individual, not to one particular government. Governments come and go but the political system has to be built on proper foundations in order to be sustainable and in order to create the stability and therefore the prosperity that will flow out of that.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
Let’s move back towards Iraqi domestic politics for a few moments…One individual who hasn’t yet come up here is Muqtada al-Sadr. And keen for your thoughts on what you see his role being in the future of Iraqi politics and whether – what are the chances of him potentially playing somewhat of a constructive role as more of a Shia nationalist figure and potentially seeking to break further from the broader Shia coalition and align his movement with Sunnis and Kurds as a potential counterweight to Maliki and playing the role of something of a spoiler? What are the chances of that? And would that be sort of a positive development in any of your views or prescription for even more trouble ahead?

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
Well, Muqtada al-Sadr has been rather unpredictable player on the Iraqi stage. That is because of his background, history. He came on a wave of love and adoration because of his father who was murdered by Saddam Hussein. His father was a remarkable thinker and writer and leader and clergyman and religious leader. He was a remarkable person. He was viewed with great respect by both Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. But there’s a segment, especially in the Shia pool, who venerated and this was his son. So he was simply swept into this position of power for which he, frankly, had no qualifications whatsoever. And therefore, he was a candidate for many positions by people who had much more experience, including our Iranian neighbors. So his recent actions – although I think his instincts were, as you pointed out, much more nationalist Iraqi, helping the poor. But his actual political actions were all over the map.

Now, what he will do next day or next month? If you ask him, I think you’ll probably get, again, an answer today and a different answer tomorrow. So it’s difficult for me to sit here in Washington and say how he is going to act.

But he is a factor definitely. And he will continue to be a factor.

The next election – next year – are going to show hopefully more mature response from the electorate. Having said that, I quickly add the qualification that this will be, again, colored, tempered by fears that are being whipped up right now.

You know, among the Islamists, especially the extremist Islamist Shias, there is this weapon they use: the Sunnis are coming to get you. The Sunnis are coming to get you is now amplified by the Sunni Arabs are coming to get you – not only the Sunni Iraqis that are coming to get you. With this conflict in Syria unresolved and it’s possible at least that it might be resolved in favor of a Sunni-dominated outcome, that makes the fear even more potent. The best things that the Sunni Arabs in Iraq should do is to try to alleviate this fear. And I think most of the wiser elements within the Sunni Arabs in Iraq are aware of the dangers of these fears going out of control.

So coming back to Muqtada. The next elections – if they are not totally swamped by the sectarian fervor – might produce a more mature outcome and might bring a new crop of leaders – younger leaders – who have been less contaminated by the events of recent years…

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
May I just to follow up comments. I agree entirely with Ryan on this. Come back to Muqtada. Muqtada should not always be viewed as a free agent. The recent episode when there was an attempt to unseat Maliki in Parliament by a vote of no confidence, initially Muqtada signed on this action, in this plan but later withdrew. And the information I have is that he withdrew because few of his lieutenant came to him and told him that they could not protect him if he went ahead with this plan. Well, that says I don’t know about – it at least explains some of the capricious nature of his decisions. He makes a decision today and he is told to change it another day.

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
I agree with that. I did say right at the beginning that I think his instincts are right because he was brought up with that family, and this family is rooted into Iraqi culture and history and seen…as being very Iraqi and very Arab, and for that reason, loved by Sunnis and Shias alike.

I just want to also add here because my comments have referred to Iran in a negative sense throughout. It is important for Iraq to have a working relationship with Iran. Iran is a neighbor. We have historical, cultural, family ties with Iranian society and we have religious ties. We have every year hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims who come from Iran to visit the holy shrines in Iraq. So a healthy and positive relationship between the two countries is absolutely essential for Iraq. It’s got to be done in such a way that it is free of domination; it’s based upon mutual respect and independence, and that’s of course in the current situation a little difficult. But that’s what we should be aiming towards.

Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States:
Religious parties are by nature sectarian, and sectarian politics is divisive and they are incompatible with a national vision, in my view. This has been proven in practice. People who see themselves as champions of this sect or that sect cannot themselves see themselves champions or be seen to be the champions of the whole nation.

In this country, you have two major parties. One Protestant and one Catholic, and you can imagine what will grow out of that. This country could not survive as it is.

In Iraq, we have paid the price of this vision, and, frankly, we have paid the price of this American view of how workable this is because it’s not.

Let me just go back to a couple of…Most of the people who are now leaders in Iraq were born and grew up during Saddam’s regime, which lasted for – the Ba’athist regime lasted for about 35 years. So people were conditioned by the way the government was run and by this highly-entrenched and effective system of splitting the goodies among the people who were faithful. The carrot and the stick were very, very severely applied, and the stick was very hard and the carrots were delicious. The system of patronage produced this generation.

Now, you take this generation, which has been conditioned like this, and you sit them down and you say, “Okay, now we’re going to play – we’re going to have Parliament, we’re going to have – the judiciary will be independent. You’ve got to play like this.” That sounds good. But when they start actually playing, they are automatically drawn to the way they’ve always done it. And this is exactly what happened, and particularly because some of them came with a sense of grievance that they were excluded, that they were oppressed, and now it’s their chance. What did Saddam do in order to consolidate his power? He seized the security apparatus and he seized oil. That worked for him. And the new newcomers? Exactly the same.

Now, Maliki is minister of interior and the effective minister of defense and the effective minister of intelligence and internal security. Hardly anything goes by on the security front which doesn’t go past his circle and oil and the revenue from oil effectively is run by him.

I remember the discussions in the governing council stage. There was a huge pressure from the parties, from the Islamist parties in particular, to appoint as many of their followers as possible, not only to positions of responsibility and leadership but also just fill the ranks of the security and other government.

Electricity at that time was produced by 35,000 workers – all of them got their income from the revenue. Now, it’s 100,000. Most of these appointees are from political parties. “You want a job? Okay, go to electricity. You want a job? Go to the police.” It is now a system of patronage, which is exactly the same as Saddam. So when you look at this super-impose rather superficially super-impose structure of political relationships, which we now call democracy, look underneath, look beyond and you will see the reality that really, to a larger extent than you would expect, resembles the ugly face of the Saddam regime.

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