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Iraq: 'Overthrowing Hussein Was Right'

Kanan Makiya (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kanan Makiya, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, is one of the leading Iraqi intellectuals living abroad and was a prominent supporter of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. RFE/RL's Kathleen Moore spoke with Makiya on the sidelines of the 10th annual Forum 2000 in Prague, a major international venue dedicated to exploring ways to avoid conflict. RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, whose theme this year is "Dilemmas of Global Coexistence."

RFE/RL: The top UN rights envoy on torture, Manfred Nowak, speaking a few weeks ago, said that torture may be worse now in Iraq than under Saddam Hussein. What do you make of this, as someone who is very well known for documenting the abuses of the Hussein era?

Kanan Makiya: Well, human rights abuses are widely, widely prevalent, if not the norm, in Iraq. The difference between the two situations is that one was officially sanctioned. Torture was the pinnacle of a system for whom that was almost a desirable form of punishment for breaking the rules during the Saddam Hussein state. Whereas now, torture is occurring because of a general breakdown of authority, left, right, and center, because of the inability of the state to essentially exercise control, to exercise law and order.

"If we learned anything, it is that the institutions that Saddam built were rotting because of sanctions. An alternative to sanctions had to be found."

The problem is, it's not the same. In one, we had centralized authority practicing torture as a sanctioned form of dealing with dissidence of any kind whatsoever. Now, we have a breakdown of law and order that is widely prevalent and that results in terrible abuses happening in all kinds of forms. Groups whose identities are not clear to anybody are committing grotesque forms of bodily disfigurement on individuals. Groups that have penetrated or are even part of the Interior Ministry or other parts of the government are also running prisons, for instance, in which abuses are taking place. So, like any general statement, it needs qualification. They are two completely different situations.

A dictatorship broke down, disappeared, was done away with, and a stable polity has not yet emerged. The issue of what it means to be an Iraqi is in question. That was something established from the top down, so to speak, before. Now, it is something that Iraqis have to figure out for themselves, and they are struggling with one another over what it means to be an Iraqi in the post-Saddam world.

The fact that abuses have gone so far is a sign of the inability of the occupying forces, the United States and the Western powers that participated, to make a success of this experiment, and a failure of the Iraqi politicians who emerged post-2003 to put together an order that would provide some kind of a compass or direction for the future. It's a very different state of affairs.

A Pandora's Box

An Iraqi mourns a victim of a bombing in Baghdad (epa)

RFE/RL: You were supportive of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Do you still feel that you were right, looking back now after three and a half years?

Makiya: I, like many others, made many mistakes of evaluation, of judgment. But I don't know how to look anybody in the face today and say that because things have gone wrong since the liberation, that it was therefore wrong to get rid of an extraordinary tyranny like [the one] we suffered under in Iraq. An exceptional tyranny, even by the terrible standards of the Middle East. It seems to me these are two separate questions, morally speaking. Not politically; I'm not speaking realpolitik.

I'm sure today, not a day passes that many members of the American administration do not rue the day that they ever supported this activity of getting rid of the tyrant and replacing [him with] a new order. They certainly regret it, because it has not been in American interests, by and large.

But I, as an Iraqi, from the point of view of someone for whom that dictatorship and its abuses over 30 years have been the be-all and end-all of my life -- I have seen what they have done -- I cannot ever say that it was wrong to support the overthrow of that dictatorship. And I challenge any human being to say to me that that was wrong.

You can say many, many other things are wrong. Policies that were followed afterwards were wrong. Approaches to government were wrong. Choices of individuals were wrong, yes. All of those are real, legitimate concerns. The lack of planning was serious. Iraqi failure to deal with their own divisions. The tendency of Iraqi politicians to foster sectarian divisions rather than to overcome them. Yes, all of these are errors -- or, worse than errors, they're terrible things that have happened since that have led this experiment, this project, to go in the direction that it is going now, which is very sad.

But it's also a bit as if, if I may make an analogy, the war lifted the lid off of Pandora's box. Remember the Greek [myth] of Pandora's box: full of furies, and the lid which kept it forced down. Sooner or later, these furies were going to come out. Iraq was a dysfunctional state before the fall of Saddam Hussein. If we learned anything, it is that the institutions that Saddam built were rotting because of sanctions. An alternative to sanctions had to be found.

It is very sad for me that Europe, which is a bastion of so many of the highest ideals to which I aspire, sat back and was happy to let the Iraqi people live under that inhuman regime of sanctions, which were killing people in vast numbers. And [Europe] allowed this situation of abuse and tyranny of the regime to continue, and did not think it morally necessary -- forget practically, maybe it's not practical -- to get rid of that kind of institutionalized abuse on that kind of scale.

Now, the United States chose to act, for whatever reason. From my point of view as an Iraqi, that decision was a thousand times better, morally speaking, than the inaction of the Europeans. The complicity of so many people in the United Nations, for instance, with the former regime. We now know so much about that because of documents that were discovered inside Iraq after the fall of the regime. ...

"Every mistake that you can imagine was made, yes. The Americans did not prepare themselves, not even one iota, as much as they should have, and that is a historic responsibility for which they will pay the price for many years to come."

Every mistake that you can imagine was made, yes. The Americans did not prepare themselves, not even one iota, as much as they should have, and that is a historic responsibility for which they will pay the price for many years to come, yes. Or, that Iraqis themselves did not rise to the occasion -- Iraqi leadership, that is, not the ordinary people, after all -- that an Iraqi leadership did not rise to the occasion of the challenge that was posed by the fall of the regime, yes. All of these are deep, serious problems.

The furies are out. They could have been managed better, but they were going to come out. Think of the fall of former Yugoslavia. Think of the transformation of [Slobodan] Milosevic from a communist to an arch-Serbian nationalist overnight. The furies were there. And they were coming out. That they were handled very badly, and were allowed to rule, which is what's going on in Iraq today, is a tragedy beyond belief. It makes me very sad, as an individual and as an Iraqi. But it doesn't in any way, shape, or form change my view about the moral rightness of overthrowing this regime.

RFE/RL: The furies are out, as you say. And you also mentioned the example of Yugoslavia. Is Iraq in a civil war?

Makiya: De facto, for all practical purposes, yes. But in so many ways it doesn't resemble a normal sort of civil war, as we think of it. So in terms of the number of bodies, I think something like 5,000 or 6,000 Iraqis have been killed in the last three or four months, [and in terms of] policemen killed since the beginning of 2006, yes.

But it isn't a civil war that is correctly described by some of the labels applied to it. Yes, there is sectarian strife, but it is not only sectarian forces that are driving this. The camps are not easy to determine. It is a breakdown of authority that is the primary cause of what's going on, that is causing the violence. A breakdown of authority which is happening, by the way, within Shi'ite groups as much as it is between Shi'ites and other groups like Sunnis and so on.

When you say 'civil war,' that is when that breakdown has become so complete, and when there is infighting within the Shi'ite groups, for instance. And that is a real danger in the coming period unless the government gets its act together. So, in many important respects, what we're looking at is a civil war, but it doesn't quite resemble a normal civil war. There is still a state, even if it is weak, and there are forces fighting, not just against the state but against each other. And there are forces within and outside the state fighting other forces. So it's complicated.

The Most Important Of The 'Many Mistakes'

Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad (epa)

RFE/RL: You mentioned some of the mistakes that have been made in the past three and a half years. What for you are the most important ones, or the ones that could have made the biggest difference had they been done differently?

Makiya: Well, I could talk about American mistakes, but Americans have done that much better than I have. There were, for instance, clearly inadequate troop levels. If you were going to choose occupation as an interim form of government, which was not my choice -- I was always against it as a form of government, as a form of transition from the Saddam regime to something new, and I always thought that was a mistake. But if you were going to go down that road, then you must at least do so with the requisite resources and troops to make it work. That, the United States did not do.

And, if an opposition, a new political elite, comes into being that understands the magnitude of the change, it, too, must not use the fig leaf of occupation as an excuse to cover up for its own unwillingness to lead. Many of the members of the Governing Council no sooner got into the Governing Council, which was an institution cobbled together by the United States, than they began to create sectarian differences, and to vote and to organize debates in that way. They didn't do so out of deep sectarian prior convictions. They did so a bit like Milosevic at the fall of the former Yugoslavia: because it was a convenient way to build a power base inside the country. Well, that quickly got out of hand, and sectarianism began to spread. Instead of being stopped from the top, it was actually cultivated by many of the leaders who came afterwards.

Other mistakes... Although I myself still think that demilitarization was a correct policy, the way it was done was wrong. It should have been done over many years, not all at once, in one fell swoop. The army should have been gradually transformed. That is a mistake that I myself shared in, for I argued for it too.

"De-Baathification should have been handled very differently... It became de-Sunnification, not de-Baathification."

De-Baathification should have been handled very differently. Many of the Iraqi politicians who ran the de-Baathification programs treated it as a way to have a vendetta against other politicians. It became de-Sunnification, not de-Baathification. And it became a way of building a power base vis-a-vis other politicians. It became a politicized game, rather than a clearly structured way of removing, simply temporarily, not penalizing or punishing, people from positions of authority in the new emerging polity. The idea was sound; the implementation was wrong.

RFE/RL: Is federalism the answer for Iraq?

Makiya: I'm one of the people who argued for federalism very strongly, and still do. But the way in which it has become synonymous with ethnic and confessional federalism I think is not going to work. We need to get beyond that; we need to have a federalism that somehow is rooted in populations -- that is, in the provinces, in the existing structures, and not as an idea essentially for three separate statelets that have Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurdish majorities in them. That idea will not work; that would be a recipe for further conflict, further violence down the line.

RFE/RL: A top U.S. senator, John Warner, just returned from Baghdad, saying that "bold decisions" would be needed, U.S. decisions, if no progress is seen soon.

Makiya: I agree.

RFE/RL: What kind of bold decisions do you think will be required?

Makiya: Firstly, we need to stop pretending that everything is all right in Iraq, and the Iraqi government should be put on notice for the abuses that are currently taking place. It needs to be held accountable, and [it should be] made very clear what will happen if the abuses that it is responsible for -- and that is certainly not all the abuses -- continue. So, a kind of firmness in that area is definitely one important step forward.

Voices Of Forum 2000

Voices Of Forum 2000

A session of Forum 2000 in Prague on October 9, 2006 (RFE/RL)

'DILEMMAS OF GLOBAL COEXISTENCE.' RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, an important global conference of ideas and initiatives. On October 9-10, 2006, RFE/RL sat down with several Forum 2000 participants to find out more about their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing the modern world.

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Kanan Makiya | 'Overthrowing Hussein was right'

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An archive of RFE/RL's interviews with newsmakers and other leading figures from across our broadcast region.

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