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Iraq: Interview With Radio Free Iraq Director Newton

By Ayad Ahmed

Prague, 28 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a speech he delivered in Washington on 23 July, the U.S. civil administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said that the United States plans in the next 60 days to form a new Iraqi army battalion, restore power to prewar levels, and distribute new schoolbooks. Bremer also called the deaths of former Iraqi President Saddam Husseins sons, Uday and Qusay, "a very good piece of news" for Iraqis and for American forces in Iraq, but warned that attacks on U.S. soldiers would likely continue.

The director of Radio Free Iraq -- one of the language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. David Newtons four-year tenure in Baghdad (1984-1988) places him among the small handful of Americans who can legitimately claim a genuine insight into the past and present of this troubled country.

RFI's Ayad Ahmad asked Newton to estimate the impact of the deaths of Uday and Qusay on the former Iraqi president and on the general Iraqi public.

"One of the things I thought about when I heard about the death of the two sons was that this man had been responsible for the death of so many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and so many families suffered because of him having their sons and fathers and others killed and now maybe this man, if he's capable of it, understands a little bit the suffering that he's put other Iraqis through over these decades," Newton said. "He's surrounded himself with tremendous apparatuses of power, a real police state, a huge cult of personality and I think down deep we're really dealing with a fundamentally weak and insecure a man who needed all that reinforcement and who needed people who would only say 'yes' to him."

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of war-torn Iraq is facing criticism from many quarters. Five independent experts sent by the Pentagon to assess the reconstruction last week said the United States faced a narrow "window of opportunity" to create law and order in Iraq, or face a "possible descent into chaos." The experts said the next three months were crucial, and urged Washington to "turbo-charge" the effort by increasing funding and personnel, involving more Iraqis and more international participation.

But is the current wave of violent crime typical of Iraqi society, or is it merely a sudden release of pent-up frustrations, in the form of unrestrained violence, brought on by three decades of harsh repression? Newton responds: "When I lived in Iraq for four years and in the 1980s I found Iraqis to be very civilized people but when you live entirely in a police state and when you only see changes in power come about through violence you have no experience in democracy and dealing with freedom and in understanding the responsibilities and limits that go with this freedom. But you have to think, first of all, there's been no wholesale killing of Ba'athists that I've seen, only individual cases, and there are a lot of Iraqis who have gone and who have made the best and tried to keep the country going -- the doctors and nurses who kept the hospitals going, the teachers, people have really in many, many cases tried to keep things going but also for a while you had no security at all, you had no police force and the U.S. military forces were not in the position to act as police, for one thing U.S. doctrine says that you never shoot a person who is not armed and who is threatening you, so how would you stop looters in that case when they come there by the hundreds. I think it is a temporary phenomenon and I think it will recede over time."

Earlier last week, three members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council presented their postwar vision to the UN Security Council. The head of the group, Adnan Pachachi, told the council that the groups "participation in this meeting is considered by the Iraqi people as a clear and express recognition of the sovereignty of Iraq."

In his speech, Pachachi spelled out his councils plans for the political, economic, and social reconstruction of Iraq. The primary goal of the council, he said, was to shorten the period of interim administration ahead of the establishment of a democratically elected Iraqi government.

However, there is also skepticism regarding how realistic this declared goal might be. Ambassador Newton comments: "I think it is realistic, but it is also essential to understand that this is not an easy thing to bring about. But, I don't agree with some people who have argued, for example, that Iraq is an artificial creation, I think it's a real country and it has a history of 5,000 years. I do think Iraqis can work together and they must work together. Each area, each group, and I wouldn't just divide Iraqis according to religion, I think that's a big mistake, there are many different kinds of Iraqis but we all have to work for a situation in which there's democratic government in which no one single group dominates. Saddam, of course, exaggerated the differences by giving all positions and the authority to people, within his own clan, his own tribe, his own area. But in the future all Iraqis have to be involved in the government and I think it is possible to do."

At the start of the debate in the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that "our collective goal remains an early end to the military occupation through the formation of an internationally recognized representative government." He added that it was essential that the Iraqi people should be able to see a clear timetable with a specific sequence of events leading to the full restoration of sovereignty "as soon as possible."

But is the current fluid and volatile situation in Iraq compatible with "specific events" taking place within a "clear timetable?" Newton believes it can and must be done.

"I certainly think it can," he said. "I think you can already see some progress at the municipal level, at the local level, and we do have a governing council. If you go, for example, to a construction site, a building is going up, you see a chart on the wall and it tells you that by such and such a date the foundation should be built, next day the frame should be there then the walls. You need that kind of a timetable, understanding that progress has to be step-by-step and you have to achieve the first and second steps before you can get to the third step. Inevitably, the coalition authority and the governing council will find maybe they need to move a bit faster than they feel comfortable with, and the Iraqi people need to understand that it is going to take some time and they have to judge it realistically. For example, you hear Iraqis saying they want the coalition forces out. The Iraqis are in no position right now to provide security for their own country. There are some thousands of ex-Saddamists, Fedayeen, and others carrying out sabotage and so forth. It will be some time before the Iraqi army is reconstituted, all the police, the coalition military forces are necessary for a while but we all have to realize that it is an unnatural situation for a country to be under occupation."

Also at the Security Council debate, the UN special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, introduced a report to Annan in which the secretary-general concluded that for the majority of Iraqis, daily living conditions have not improved and "might even be worse" than before the U.S.-British invasion.