A free liberal Iraq
Omayma Abdel-Latif talks to Adnan Bachachi on the future of Iraq
On Tuesday Adnan Bachachi, the former Iraqi foreign minister and a leading figure in the Iraqi political scene, landed on Iraqi soil for the first time in 32 years -- after leaving Baghdad in 1971 to settle in the United Arab Emirates. The veteran diplomat, who will turn 80 next week, has recently become the focus of extensive media coverage. He is portrayed as the liberal, secular face of Iraq, while his name frequently comes up as one of "Iraq's potential leaders". Arab media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV describe him as "the most likely candidate for the post of premiership" in Iraq's future interim government. "The new government", in the words of Jay Garner, the US general in charge of post war reconstruction in Iraq, will likely take shape by mid May.
Born in Baghdad on 14 May 1923, Bachachi is the scion of a notable Sunni family with a long tradition in Iraqi politics. The post of Iraq's premiership was the exclusive domain of his father, his uncle and his father-in-law. Bachachi received his secondary education at Victoria College in Alexandria in 1934 and joined the American University in Beirut (AUB) in 1940 where he specialised in history and political science. Bachachi then served in the diplomatic corps where he was the permanent representative for Iraq at the UN for six years from 1959-1965. A year later he was appointed Iraqi foreign minister and in 1967 went back to chair Iraq's permanent seat at the international body. When the Ba'th Party came to power in July 1968, Bachachi resigned from his post because as he put it "I felt it was morally wrong to represent a regime whose values I don't share."
According to many observers, Bachachi is a new comer to Iraq's political opposition scene. His name rose to prominence only a few months ago during the second meeting of Iraqi opposition in London in December 2002. During a follow up meeting held in the northern Iraqi city of Salahuddin in February of this year, Bachachi was seen as one of the leading opposition figures in exile. The interim command council's list of the six most prominent figures included: Masud Barazani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Abdel-Aziz Al- Hakim, deputy head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iyad Alwai, head of the Iraqi National Accord, Ahmed Chalabi head of the INC and Adnan Bachachi. Bachachi, however declined to join the council, a move he is now reconsidering.
This week, Bachachi will come back to an Iraq in which the political future of the country is fraught with great uncertainties. He acknowledges the hard road ahead and describes it as "a very tense time in the history of Iraq". As he begins his trip home, Bachachi is fully aware that he is "not very well known inside Iraq" but explains why he will embark on such a visit. "I am going to Iraq to meet with the people, get to know their needs, their aspirations and explain my point of view on the issues which concern them," Bachachi told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi just as he was about to leave for Jordan where he met King Abdullah on Sunday. Observers say that his tour of key Arab countries as well as his meeting with some Arab leaders has earned Bachachi the blessings of both the Arabs and the Americans as the candidate for Iraq's top post -- something Bachachi dismissed altogether. When pressed for an answer on what he hopes to achieve now that he has joined Iraq's opposition at such a late age, he stressed that he has "no political ambition whatsoever out of this engagement in Iraqi politics". In fact he gets very annoyed by those who describe him as the "Karzai of Iraq," in a reference to the Afghani leader Hamid Karzai.
Though he is keeping his Iraq trip under close wraps, Bachachi said that he is planning to tour Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. One of his immediate concerns will be stepping up efforts to put together an Iraqi transitional government. The aim, he explained, is to set up a transitional government, have a new constitution and hold a free election as soon as possible. "We want to put an end to the occupation administration which the Americans and the British have set up. This will only be achieved through the formulation of a transitional government run by the Iraqis. This is our primary concern at this stage," Bachachi told the Weekly. His consistent emphasis on the need to put together an Iraqi transitional government within a short time frame reflects his staunch opposition and concern that the Americans might outstay their welcome in Iraq. "The Iraqis should be allowed to rule their own country because an American administration would mean a continuation of the military presence and this is not going to be tolerated by the Iraqi people," Bachachi said. Bachachi's trip home is seen by observers as a culmination of his efforts to allow what he calls "the silent majority" of Iraqis to have a say in the post-war arrangements and to push for a bigger role for the UN in reconstructing Iraq. Bachachi insisted that a UN role is vital in shaping Iraq's future. There will be a UN presence in the upcoming meeting of the Iraqi opposition scheduled for early next month.
Bachachi believes that the US occupation troops should not stay more than six months after the election of the transitional government which is currently planned to take place in June during the Baghdad meeting. This will be the first time Bachachi participates in an Iraqi opposition meeting inside Iraq. In the previous two meetings held in Nasseriya and Baghdad, one of Bachachi's representatives attended. This time, however, he is keen to be involved in the discussions. "The significance of this meeting," explained the veteran Iraqi diplomat, "is that it will elect the transitional government which will represent all Iraqis and it will be attended by all the various political groups, intellectuals, professionals as well as Iraqi tribes."
When asked about the increasing calls from some sections of Iraqi society for a bigger role for the religious establishment and the fears in the West about growing influence of the mosque and religious groups, Bachachi insisted that the best political formula for Iraq at this stage is for it to be "liberal and democratic". "My view is that political activities in Iraq should not be based on ethnic or religious or racial basis. I think what separates the Iraqis is not their ethnic origins or religious convictions but rather their political tendencies."
But does he believe that religion should be separate from the state in a future Iraq? Since Bachachi fully understands that he is treading on dangerous water when discussing the role of the religious establishment in Iraq, he does not offer a straight answer. "Again I stress that the diversity in Iraq is political and not ethnic, sectarian or religious. All groups and organisations must participate in the process of change and the design of a new Iraqi state so that all have a stake in the outcome." One of the issues which he will immediately address is the need for political party laws to regulate the political process and allow for elections.
Bachachi's visit to Iraq comes shortly after a team of 150 Iraqi-Americans were hand-picked by the Pentagon and airlifted on US military airplanes to Iraq last week in order to help set up an administrative structure. Some of those Iraqi exiles come with their own agenda. While Bachachi stressed that he has no qualms about working with anyone, he believes that the wider space should be given to Iraqis inside the country. "I am ready to cooperate with all the Iraqi factions and groups but I believe that the wider space should be given to the groups inside Iraq. The conference which will be held at the end of this month will allow for a better representation of political groups inside Iraq. They have suffered the brunt of the regime's atrocities during the past three decades and they should have the right to have a say in running the affairs of Iraq," Bachachi said.