In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from Tehran, Sayed Mohamed Baqer Al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq spoke to Omayma Abdel-Latif about his views on the US-led war on Iraq and its consequences
Sayed Mohamed Baqer Al-Hakim
64-year-old Sayed Mohamed Baqer Al-Hakim is one of only a few highly respected Iraqi opposition figures in exile. For the past three decades he has been involved in political activities and was the founder of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the main Shi'a opposition movement, and the most competent amongst Iraq's opposition factions. Currently based in Tehran, SCIRI's main constituency is in southern Iraq.
Al-Hakim belongs to one of the most notable Shi'a families in Iraq: his father is Muhsin Al- Hakim Al-Tabataba'i, a senior Shi'a ayatollah from Al-Najaf Al-Ahsraf, who was known for his vocal criticism of Ba'athist regime practices against the Shi'as during the 1950s and 60s. Tabataba'i died in June 1970. Al-Hakim's political activities during the 1970s led to his imprisonment a number of times: in 1972, 1977 and 1979. On 17 November 1977, Al-Hakim founded the SCIRI with the support of Iran. He chairs the organisation and works together with a central committee of 16 members. Al-Hakim fled to Iran a year after his release from prison.
Al-Hakim has been keen that the SCIRI be representative of all Iraqi Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'a, from its inception. The SCIRI is also known to have refused an offer of US funding, has been keen to distance itself from any connection with that country and remains opposed to any American intervention in Iraqi affairs. The SCIRI has a paramilitary wing called the Badr Brigade who Al- Hakim has prevented from conducting military activities inside Iraq so as not to be interpreted as supporting the US-led invasion.
Al-Hakim spoke about the current situation in Iraq, reasons why the Shi'a population have not risen up against Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraqi opposition, his views on US plans to appoint a military governor to rule Baghdad and his vision for a new Iraq.
As the war enters its third week, Iraqis are still standing their ground. Why haven't the Shi'a of Basra and southern Iraq risen up against Saddam Hussein?
There are a number of reasons why there has not been an uprising, most important of which is that Iraqis perceive the United States as an occupying rather than a liberating force. The US has turned its back on world public opinion, which was opposed to this war. This perception has affected the way people have reacted. The second reason has to do with people's strong sense of nationalism, the painful memories of the war of 1991 and the fear that anyone who rises up against the regime will be crushed. Worse still, today I received calls from inside Iraq and people were telling me that allied troops have been ordered to quell any attempts at protest or uprising by civilians. Some members of the Iraqi opposition were told this bluntly by the Americans. Allied troops are now targeting civilians and in Al-Emmara governorate in Besan district, which is located between Basra and Nassiriya, five civilian cars have been shot at and innocent people were killed by the allied troops. Now Iraqis are caught between Saddam Hussein's forces and the occupation forces. This is why I urge all Iraqis not to get involved in the fighting. They should not side, either with Saddam's forces, or with the US-led forces.
But should they not resist the occupation of their land?
We understand this war to be about imposing US hegemony over Iraq. They have to resist this hegemony by all means possible. I have always told the people of Iraq to defend their land and be united in the face of this hegemony. If Americans are planning to stay in Iraq as an occupation force after Saddam, we have repeatedly stated that they will be faced by fierce armed resistance.
Would you confirm news that there was an uprising against the Iraqi regime in Basra?
Not in Basra. There has been sporadic resistance in different parts of Iraq, however, it was suppressed.
Some observers say that the Iraqi opposition is disunited and that it has failed to present itself as a viable and legitimate alternative to Saddam Hussein's rule. Would you agree with this?
I would not say that the Iraqi opposition is disunited, on the contrary, there is common ground between the various factions of the opposition, particularly those which enjoy political clout within Iraq. In its last meeting in the city of Salahuddin, there were more than 400 figures representing all factions of the Iraqi opposition. They reached a common view on the future of Iraq, elected their leaders and appointed committees to translate this vision on the ground.
But some of those who claim to represent the Iraqi opposition have already been discredited in the eyes of the Iraqi people, like, for example, Ahmed Chalabi head of the Iraqi National Congress
I don't want to refer to anybody specifically. What I am talking about is the Iraqi opposition which is now operating inside Iraq. The central committee is located in Arbil and coordinates the work of 14 sub-committees. These committees are run by almost 100 personnel, who represent the various political, social and religious trends in Iraq.
But is it capable of filling the political vacuum that will be created in the post-Saddam era?
I believe that they will be capable of filling the political and security vacuum 10 times better than is possible under Saddam Hussein. The example of the Kurds in northern Iraq can be cited as an example. The people who have been selected to run political, human rights, constitutional, media and international relations sub-committees are very experienced in those fields and are capable of assuming their responsibilities in a new political environment.
But the US administration does not seem to be taking the Iraqi opposition seriously since it is moving ahead with plans to appoint Jay Garner, a former US general, to head the military occupation of the country after Saddam. How would you deal with this situation?
We have said from the beginning that we reject any American bid for a post-Saddam order because it will simply be an occupation force. We will not accept an American military ruler in Iraq when there should be a national government representing all of Iraq's political forces. Any other arrangement will have grave consequences for the Americans because the Iraqis are a dignified people who will not accept foreign rule under any circumstances. I cannot stress enough that the Americans would be committing a grave mistake.
But the Americans don't seem deterred by these threats
I think the US will come under pressure when Arab countries present their bid for the post-war order. Arab states must show concern for the Iraqi people and they must provide a proposal to settle the Iraqi question in a way that preserves the country's territorial integrity, its sovereignty and guard it against hegemonic and imperialistic schemes. Any proposal should insist that Saddam step down, force a cease- fire and call on foreign troops to withdraw from Iraq. The UN would have to step in and supervise free elections. If and when Arab states present such a proposal and rally the support of the European Union, only then will both parties [the US and the Iraqi regime] feel pressured and respond.
But given the sorry state of Arab politics today, do you see this scenario as plausible?
Well they have to assume some responsibilities before God and their own people. The situation in Iraq does not just concern the Iraqi opposition. This is a flagrant case of an Arab and Muslim country being invaded and occupied by a foreign power. There will have to be coordination between the Iraqi opposition and Arab and Muslim nations to stand up to this occupation.
Were you approached by US administration officials?
Yes, but in the same way that all opposition factions were approached. We also held extensive talks with the European Union about the future of Iraq.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested, in an article in The Washington Post this week, that US forces in Iraq would isolate Baghdad from its Republican Guard defenders, then wait to see if the city's substantial Shi'a Muslim population rose up against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. How do you respond to this?
I have not seen this statement. All I can say is that we will not let others decide the fate of Iraq's Shi'a and Sunni population and dictate what they should and should not do.
What is your vision of a future government in Iraq?
First we don't believe in a system that is based on sectarian or racial division. I think what the majority of Iraqi factions have come to recognise as the best political course for Iraq is the parliamentarian system on the basis of one man one vote, without applying any sectarian agenda. I also strongly believe that any future government should uphold the religious values of the Iraqi people, which are rooted in Islam. It has to be emphasised that Islam is the official religion of the state and that Shari'a is the main source of legislation. That said, all the rights of the religious minorities will be respected. The cultural sensitivities and religious values of the Iraqi people also have to be taken into account in any future Iraqi government.
No to military government
Iraqi oppositionists in London assailed US plans for military rule in post-war Iraq
A group of Iraqi opposition figures meeting in London earlier this week expressed their rejection of plans for US military rule in post-war Iraq. The one-day meeting brought together 300 rank and file members of the Iraqi opposition in exile, along with representatives from the five states with permanent members on the UN Security Council and diplomats from Japan and Turkey.
In the event's keynote speech, prominent Iraqi dissident Adnan Bacha-Chai, a former Iraqi foreign minister, told participants that "Iraqis will not accept foreign occupation of their country." He reiterated calls to establish an interim Iraqi government in full coordination with the UN, saying it should be an independent government that assumes full authority over the country's affairs. Bacha- Chai urged the UN secretary-general to dispatch a specially-appointed delegation to Iraq to meet representatives of political forces there as a step towards forming a cabinet that will temporarily run Iraqi affairs.
Observers described the conference as an attempt by a group of liberal Iraqis to influence post-war arrangements in light of disclosures by the Guardian about the existence of a US plan to establish a new government in Iraq. According to the London daily, the government, which is currently located in Kuwait, will consist of 23 ministries, each headed by an American. Each minister will be advised by four Iraqis appointed by the Americans. "The government will take over Iraq city by city. Areas declared 'liberated' by General Tommy Franks will be transferred to the temporary government under the overall control of Jay Garner, the former US general appointed to head a military occupation of Iraq," the paper reported on Tuesday.
Such a scenario is exactly what many Iraqi oppositionists have been working to avert. Leith Kubba, a prominent Iraqi analyst and professor at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy who attended the conference, insisted that the role of the UN was vital in post-war Iraq, and he rejected any American bids to impose military rule.
The statement issued by the conference made this point more strongly. It urged the current Iraqi regime to step down in order to put an end to military operations in Iraq. "Iraqis of all stripes reject any attempts to occupy Iraq or to set up foreign rule on its land," the statement said. It dealt at length with post-Saddam Iraq, providing details of the steps paving the way for a freely elected government that reflects the will of the Iraqi people. It called for a conference that would be attended by representatives of the various political, religious and social factions in Iraq to outline "strategies for democratic change" and set up an interim Iraqi administration to run the country in coordination with the UN. Topping the agenda of such an interim government, the statement said, would be ending political oppression and sectarian strife, securing political and civil rights for all Iraqis and preserving the country's unity and territorial integrity. It also put particular emphasis on securing the rights of the Kurdish people.