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2003-08-04

"I Did Not Want to Be a Collaborator"–Former Member of the Iraqi Reconstruction Council Explains His Decision to Resign

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After 25 years in exile, Iraqi scholar and professor Isam al-Khafagi accepted an invitation by the U.S. government to return to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to help with postwar reconstruction and rehabilitation of ministries. He resigned a few weeks ago saying, "there seemed to be no interest on the part of the coalition in involving Iraqis as advisers on the future of their nation." [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

A piece in the Comment section of the Guardian of London begins like this:

“On July 9, with deep sorrow, I submitted my resignation as a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council to US deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz.

"I did this with great sadness but, in doing so, I was able to leave Iraq with a clear conscience. If I had stayed any longer, I might not have been able to say that. I feared my role with the reconstruction council was sliding from what I had originally envisioned–working with allies in a democratic fashion–to collaborating with occupying forces."

The article goes on to say:

"There seemed to be no interest on the part of the coalition in involving Iraqis as advisers on the future of their nation. Our role was very limited. Even reporters who visited us took note, writing that although the reconstruction council has an office within the presidential palace, there seems to be little done apart from members reading their email."

  • Isam al-Khafaji, a former member of the Iraqi reconstruction council. He resigned from the council on July 9th and two weeks later wrote an article in the Comment section of the Guardian of London entitled "I did not want to be a collaborator." He is a professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam and author of the forthcoming book Tormented Births: Passages to Modernity in Europe and the Middle East. He was a member of the Democratic Principles Working Group convened by the U.S. state department to discuss the future of Iraqi governance. He joins us on the phone from Amsterdam.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! The war and peace report. A piece in the Guardian of London, July 28th, begins "On July 9th, with deep sorrow, I submitted my resignation as a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council to U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz  the I did this with great sadness. But in doing so, I was able to leave IRAQ with a clear conscience. If I stayed any longer I might not have been able to say that. I feared my role with the Reconstruction Council was sliding from what I had originally envisioned, working with allies in a democratic fashion to collaborating with occupying forces". These are the words of Isam al-Khafaji, a former member of the Iraq Reconstruction Council. He quit, wrote this piece in the paper, was a member of the Democratic Principles Working Group convened by the U.S. state department to discuss the future of Iraqi governance. He joins us on the telephone right now from Amsterdam. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how you first got involved with this Iraqi Reconstruction Council and then what ultimately led to you resign?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: I was contacted by members, by the coordinator of that council around February this year. And the idea was to form some kind of a political council of experts, of top experts, whose mission was to rebuild the Iraqi state and bring back to action.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were you doing? What was your profession?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Personally I was supposed to be in the overseeing committee of—I mean, I wasn’t assigned to a particular ministry, but the idea was to oversee the work of our teams and we managed to form teams of four, around four people for each ministry and four people for each government that is each province, in Iraq outside Kurdistan, which is rather stable now, and that was the idea that once we arrive to Iraq we will proceed to involve Iraqis from within the ministries and the governors there to take over the jobs of bringing back basic services, bringing back the security, electricity, all of these issues which Iraqis are still suffering from their lack. And that was it. We were supposed to have, our job was supposed to be, to take months, not a permanent council. So actually I looked at it as an opportunity and  for me and for many other Iraqi democrats who have been fighting against Saddam’s regime to go back to participate in rebuilding our country.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like for you to return, when had you left Iraq, originally?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: When had you first left Iraq?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: I left Iraq in 1978 after I was teaching at the university then and there were these attempts at forcing each member of the faculties, et cetera, to join the ruling party of Saddam Hussein. But I entered clandestine several times since then.

AMY GOODMAN: Doing what?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Doing a lot of things.I think now it’s history. I never lost touch with my country. I never lost touch with the political currents, with activities, democratic activities if you like I guess with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was it like to return a few weeks after?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Words cannot actually describe the emotion of  the emotions that overwhelmed all of us, actually. It’s a dream coming true, I can just say like that. And so many myths about the Iraqi diaspora, that we were out of touch, et cetera , have proven to be false. I mean, we fit in well, immediately, once we were there. Naturally there will always be the sense of some kind of distance. But I don’t think that all these myths about Iraqis being out, dividing Iraqis into outside Iraqis and inside Iraqis from inside. I don’t think they are based on any reality.

AMY GOODMAN: So, when you got there, when did you start to see that there was something wrong with the Reconstruction Council and how it was set up?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: To tell you the truth, it was from day one that we discovered that our role as advisors was not wanted, actually. And nevertheless we tried to, we did our best to convince the coalition authority that it was in their best and in our best interest to involve us as advisors and as full partners in the job of rebuilding the state. But unfortunately nothing of that material arised.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what the situation was and what the role of the United States was in it.

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: The situation was like this, that I think that Iraqis in general and the council in particular, we were victims of this sweeping victory, of the U.S. sweeping victory. This is my analysis. It might not be accurate but actually, the moment Saddam fell and the regime, that is, fell and the moment that people met that with euphoria, the U.S. administration, it seems to me, or the occupation force looked at it as a  that sure that there is no need for Iraqis that things were going smoothly, that they could do it all by themselves. They are appointed advisors, American, most of the American advisors to run the ministries, to go to the ministries and check who would stay and who would leave. And so Iraqis were actually either those who are joined the teams, the American teams, were actually just relegated to secondary jobs. And up until now I can say that things are not moving in any other direction and this explains to a lot of extent the paralysis of the Iraqi state that nothing is moving actually, this is where the dangers are coming from that Iraqis don’t see any improvement in their life.

AMY GOODMAN: We just had a conversation with Jim Vallette talking about the Bush executive order that grants total immunity to U.S. oil companies that move in to Iraq, executive order 13303, what is YOUR response to that?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Well my response is that, it is also an unfortunate order one to be added to the many unfortunate decisions that have been taken because, the one thing that Iraqis are suspicious about is that Americans have come here for oil. Once this reaches the public, Iraqi public, this will only add to their fears that this is not an operation to build a democratic Iraq, this not an operation to forge a new relationship between the Middle East and the west or Middle East and the United States. This is just an additional, one more chapter in the sad history of the U.S. and the west looking at this region just as a source of oil to plunder their oil, the cheapest possible way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I understand that you’re going to be returning to Iraq?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: I’m looking at various openings to go back to Iraq. Yes, I’m very enthusiastic about it.

AMY GOODMAN: In what capacity?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: I’m looking at various organizations, different organizations, what they are offering. One thing that I would like to do is to feel that I’m doing an effective role in rebuilding my country. I’m not looking for a political role. But I feel that I have some skills if you like that might benefit my country in education, cultural fields, mostly in social issues. I’m looking at the different openings.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were President Bush right now, what would you be doing about Iraq?

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: First I wouldn’t like to be in President Bush’s shoes neither now or at any other time. But I think the best thing is to go to Iraq, to go around and have some face to face talks with the people there to see what THEIR grievances are, what their solutions are also. Not just to listen to their grievances because the idea that we know the solution, we have the solutions for Iraq has proven to be disastrous. And this is what has been going on for the past four months. There is an implicit idea that even if we listen to their grievances, it’s us who give the solutions. And this is just bringing disastrous answers to deep crisis. I would say Mr. President, go to Iraq, meet the people there, listen to their advice.

AMY GOODMAN: and Ahmed Chalabi what has happened to him in the Iraq National Council that the U.S. has so firmly backed and brought back into Iraq in many agencies suggesting he would be the new leader.

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Well, now he is one of 25 members of a political council that’s called the Government Council. We have to wait and see what the authority of that council is. Once again unfortunately after weeks of establishing that council, Iraqis haven’t seen any improvement in their life. They haven’t seen this council taking real actions to or approach to their problems. One indicator is that after weeks of deliberation, all they reached was a rotating presidency of nine members of the 25 presidents for one month. And this is just an indicator that the members are not being able to reach any consensus on any of the real issues facing Iraq and Iraqis. If they couldn’t agree on a president then how could they agree on the more important issues. Up to now they haven’t been able to form a cabinet or to appoint people to the ministries. I have the greatest respect for some of the members of that council. I have no doubt in their patriotism and their honesty and commitment. But the problem is more than just looking at the individuals and their capacities. It’s a structural problem I should say.

AMY GOODMAN: Isam Al-Khafaji, thank you very much for being with us, again, a former member of the Iraqi Reconstruction Council who has resigned saying I did not want to be a collaborator.

ISAM AL-KHAFAJI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much. Speaking to us from Amsterdam.

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