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Interview with Outgoing Arab League Representative in Iraq Mokhtar Lamani - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Arab League Representative in Iraq Mokhtar Lamani has revealed sensational and grave details about the domestic situation in Iraq. He warned against the absence of the Arab role in Iraq, and against the attempt by a number of foreign sides to transform the Iraqi territories into an arena for fighting and sectarian tension.

Lamani submitted his resignation last month to the Arab League secretary general, after he worked in Iraq for nearly one year during which he was able to conduct contacts with all the Iraqi sides.

Lamani stressed that the US Administration committed a grave mistake in Iraq by dismantling the state institutions, Debathification, and dissolving the army. He pointed out that the Baker-Hamilton report ultimately would not serve anybody’s interests other than those of the United States. He said that the situation in Iraq was complicated, and was bound to become even more complicated if the neighboring countries were to continue to nurture sectarianism at the expense of the interests of the Iraqi people. Lamani pointed out that the operations of eviction and killing according to the identity were no longer restricted hostilities between one sect and another, but they had extended to the internal fighting within the same sect.

Asharq al-Awsat met Lamani in Cairo and conducted this interview with him:

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How was the situation in Iraq when you left?

(Lamani) The situation in Iraq is tragic. I have never seen a crisis in the world whose complications have reached the current level of those of the situation in Iraq. There are three basic groups. The first group is the relations among the Iraqis, and the dangerous state of these relations. The Iraqis are not in agreement even over the diagnosis of the problems among them. The second group is the state of complete mistrust among all the Iraqis. I have spent the first four months in Iraq as a listener in order to understand the situation in Iraq (Lamani does not mention the third group).

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Can we divide these groups on the ground?

(Lamani) I divided the people to whom I listened into four categories: politicians, religious scholars, tribesmen, and civil society members, including the academic and the intellectuals. The politicians also were divided into two groups: politicians who believed in the political process, engaged in it, and participated in the elections and the drafting of the constitution; and politicians who rejected this political process. During the first four months, I noticed after I listened to all the Iraqi sides that they were preoccupied with what they wanted to get from Iraq, and not with what they wanted to offer it. I also noticed, particularly among the politicians, that every side’s feeling of his sect or nationality was stronger than his feeling of his Iraqi identity.

(Mustafa) Can the Iraqi fortify their country through domestic accord?

(Lamani) I am convinced that they cannot, because now they are in a state of tension and reaction, and there is no trust. Everyone is reacting to the other. They certainly need assistance from abroad. On their own they cannot do this, at least under the current circumstances. I believe that I was one of the few people, if not the only one, who had contacts with all the Iraqi sides, from the resistance, to the government, to the Muslim Scholars Association.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is there a real Iraqi resistance in the sense we know?

(Lamani) Yes, there is resistance; there is.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Who does this resistance target? Does it target the occupation? Does it target a sect? What does it target?

(Lamani) There is a resistance that came from the beginning on the basis that the country is occupied, an occupation army entered the country, and this resistance wants to resist this occupation.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is it an Islamic resistance, a national resistance, or what?

(Lamani) There is everything in this resistance, because it contains many diversified organizations. There are many weapons. Sometimes you will find a group of ten people; some of the groups consist of dozens or hundreds of peoples. I will not name names, but there are large organized groups that joined the resistance as a result of the terrifying mistakes committed during the period of the US Administration representative Bremer, who dismantled the state institutions, implemented the Debathification policy, and dissolved the army. The people could not find any solution other than resistance. They know their country well, and the weapons that were there. There is resistance, and there are other organizations; there are gangs, and also militias.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does the resistance fight using the weapons of Saddam?

(Lamani) I do not have precise information, but the easiest thing to get in Iraq is weapons. You can buy explosives and pistols from any market. This happens.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What are the most organized and most effective resistance groups? Are they the Baathists, the nationalists, or the Islamists?

(Lamani) I believe that there are the army veterans, and also the Salafis; these resistance groups basically are in the western regions; I believe that what unites them is the existence of a common goal. However, what frightens me is that the problem now in Iraq is not only the presence of the occupation, but also the consequences that occurred, particularly the sectarian tension, the compulsory eviction, and the killing according to the identity, which are the issues I mentioned in my letter to the Arab League secretary general. In every sect in the world, in every religion, and in every nationality, the majority is decent and wants to live in peace, but always there are extremists on the fringes; when the extremists are on the fringes this is healthy. Despite the extensive ethnic cleansing and other things, the neighboring Shiite and the Sunni coexist and defend each other as neighbors. Whoever practices ethnic cleansing, whether from this or that side comes from the outside. This is some kind of transferring the extremists from the fringes to the center, which is a very dangerous issue.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Have those who came from abroad, such as Salafi hardliner Al-Zarqawi and the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who infiltrated Iraq, encouraged the armed Shiite extremism and the Sunni extremism? I mean, have they dragged the followers of the two sects within Iraq into extremism?

(Lamani) Definitely the foreign sides have a role; I mean Al-Zarqawi and others. However, now there are Iraqi organizations that are very extreme, whether they belong to this sect or that. Eviction now happens within the same sect; some members of the Al-Qa’ida are evicted from the resistance because they are Ba’thists, who are said to be seculars. Also there is the emergence of Jund al-Sama (Soldiers of Heaven) in Al-Najaf. This is a grave situation, because the situation appears as if it is an issue between the Sunnis and the Shiites. This is only the beginning, because if this situation is not rectified, the Shiites will devour the Sunnis and the Sunnis will devour the Shiites, and chaos will prevail. The Iraqis need help to rectify this situation. The Iraqis and the neighboring countries ought to understand that fortifying Iraq should happen from within, and it would be a fatal error if every side were to think of fortifying only its own sect.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) To what extent do you consider the neighboring countries responsible for what is happening in Iraq?

(Lamani) Undoubtedly they are responsible, whether they are involved, infiltrated (the country), entrenched themselves (in Iraq), or are standing by as spectators. The spectators have been dealing with Iraq during the past years as if Iraq is on the surface of the moon. As for those who have infiltrated the country, they have done so according to agendas that eventually will burn them. Iraq needs stances of a different type. Forget about the conferences and such nonsense. Many sides should revise their stances. One of these sides is the United States; the United States has a special responsibility.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your opinion, in which direction should the United States revise its stance?

(Lamani) I met Baker and his commission, and we had lengthy discussions. What alarms me now is that the Iraqi dossier has become a central dossier for the United States and its elections. However, what alarms me most is that the revision of this dossier would be according to the interests of the United States, and not the higher interests of Iraq; even the issue of whether to withdraw or not would be decided on the basis that some of them say that our sons (i.e. US soldiers) are being killed there, and no one thinks of the tragedy in Iraq.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Let us put ourselves in the shoes of US President Bush and talk about the US interests as you see it as someone who lived in Iraq, and observed closely all the elements of the Iraqi equation in war and peace?

(Lamani) I will talk of what I have seen and witnessed after the US Congress elections. I do not think that the problem will be solved by adding more US soldiers. This for a very simple reason, namely that the addition of 21,000 soldiers to the 130,000 US soldiers already in Iraq, i.e. having 150,000 US soldiers, will not change anything. We can compare this to the number of the coalition forces in 2005, 160,000, but the situation then was worse than now. The United States has an immense responsibility.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that the Baker-Hamilton Report was close to this thinking of yours?

(Lamani) The report includes a great deal of positive elements, but its principal starting point is the higher interests of the United States.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) With regard to the regional sides, the Arabs and Iran, how do you assess their stances?

(Lamani) For the Arabs to restrict themselves to be spectators in this irresponsible way is shameful and is not in their interest. The same applies to Iran. It ought to revise its stance, because it is exploiting the vacuum in Iraq in this way to infiltrate the country, and to establish relations with some sides in order to play a role. This is not in its interest. Large numbers of people and of the tribes in the southern regions who used to visit me expressed their explicit resentment of the Iranian infiltration and its method. This is because Iraq is in some ways open for exploitation, and there is no supervision by the government, in addition to the existing problems within the government itself. There is no harmony in the government. As for the attempts to establish a moderate majority, all the attempts of reform – whether at the domestic level among the Iraqis or at the regional level – tended to patch up the situation. I believe that the collapse of Iraq will destroy everything.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How did you start your mission in Iraq?

(Lamani) For three months I kept traveling everywhere in Iraq in order to understand the situation. I did not have any illusions that there will be resources. The mission consisted of two persons – I and another person – compared to the UN mission that had four centers in Arbil and Baghdad, and in Amman it had 500 employees, aircraft, and resources. This means that you cannot compare the situation of the UN mission with that of the Arab League mission. Moreover, I opted to reside in the Red Zone, which included the entire Iraq apart from the Green Zone, and in which there was no security or anything else. This was in order to facilitate the communication with all the Iraqi sides. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mr. Hoshiar Zebari kindly provided me with guards from the Pesh Merga forces (Kurdish armed soldiers) for my residence because the entire area – we were living in a district called Al-Sikak in Al-Salihiyah – was the district of the Foreign Ministry. In Iraq, every minister has a group of guards of his own, from his people. The district in which we resided was protected by the Pesh Merga. “It is very nice” to be the representative of the Arabs, but protected by the Kurds. It was a completely new experience for the Arab League, because it was the first time that the league had a permanent representative in a region of conflict. For nearly one year during which I was in danger, I did not have an armored car in a country in which the explosions kill dozens of innocent people every day, and on whose grounds dozens of competing armed organizations operate. I asked for an armored car, but I only received it after seven months. Also I did not have any secure means of communications with the Arab League; many of the messages I tried to send to the Arab League headquarters in Cairo were tampered with by various elements; delete this, do not send this paragraph, and so on. I asked for an encoded fax machine that would allow me to send correspondence without the interference of others, but the Arab League was not able to send it until the moment of my return. I was living in danger but, I did not care; I was exposed to armed provocations and threats, but the security fears were not at all the reason for my return, otherwise I would have returned months ago.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) In the memorandum you sent to the Arab League you made certain remarks. Can we review these remarks?

(Lamani) I do not know the reason of this media commotion, neither the way this memorandum was leaked. It is a memorandum that came from the heart about what I witnessed. I feel that we are at the crossroads, and that what I am required to offer is not in my hands. I do not want to be a spectator, a fact that left me feeling frustrated. I reviewed in the memorandum my view of the situation in Iraq, the problems of the Iraqi population, and the circumstances under which I went to Iraq. I told Mr. Amr Musa that for the aforementioned reasons I did not see any real move in the direction of dealing with the issue; I focused primarily on the Arab situation on the basis that I was the representative of the Arab League, and I said that I decided to withdraw from this mission.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) This means that it was a resignation for reasons?

(Lamani) No, it was a final decision not to stay. There were resignations before, and there were many discussions to and fro, but the relations were good with all the Iraqi sides.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Assuming that there are specific conditions to return to Iraq, what are these conditions?

(Lamani) I believe that going to Iraq, and serving in Iraq in the way I did was an honor. If I had the chance, I would go again and again. However, there is a single condition, namely that the situation should lean toward giving the Iraqi population real assistance so as to help their country from within. As you know, my relationship with Iraq started in 1991. I hope to be able to offer something, but I will not go to pour water on sand so that it will be wasted. At the current moment perhaps Iraq has reached an impasse, and has become an arena for conflict among foreign powers; this is very grave.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) At the current moment, do you see any hope, or is the picture dark and the road blocked?

(Lamani) There is a failed political plan. The reconciliation has not succeeded, and nothing has succeeded. There are regional sides that have entrenched themselves there, others have infiltrated the country, and there are those who have restricted themselves to being spectators, as if they are safe from what is happening in Iraq. This is the reality. The security situation is catastrophic, and the living conditions are catastrophic. The population has no electricity and no water; the Iraqi society is struck in its core. The rate of people emigrating is 3,000 families every day; however, when we look at the small minorities, such as the Christians, everybody suffers. When the situation reaches such a degree, it is difficult to restore it to what it was; this is with regard to the security situation, the political project, and the reconstruction. What saddens me is that the Arab presence was not at an appropriate level, to the extent that I went there without any resources. The resolution on whose basis I went to Iraq specified an Arab diplomatic presence; during one year I saw many countries appointing diplomats, but they were asked to reside in Amman despite the fact that they had physical resources. In fact there was nothing that could be offered. My conviction is that my good relations with all the Iraqi sides will not solve the problem, because I became like the monk offering advice. The situation needs participation in the negotiations, and this is not in my hands, but it is in the hands of the countries, and it has not been apparent on the horizon that these countries will play a role in bringing the Iraqis closer together; I am convinced that this will not happen.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were an Arab representative of the Arab League to an Arab country, and you say that we ought to do much for security, dialogue and reconciliation. Is there a practical mechanism that could achieve dialogue, reconciliation, and security?

(Lamani) There are numerous and major problems, and there is no magic wand to collect all these problems and solve them in one go. However, we can focus on the less difficult problems, and achieve success in the field regarding these problems, a fact that would have positive impact on rebuilding trust among the sides and on bringing them closer together. This is because in doing so you will be dealing with all sides – while you are surrounded by domestic and foreign agendas – on the basis that the main line is to fortify Iraq from within, and that you welcome anyone who proceeds in this direction, including Iran, Turkey, and the Arab countries. The determining factor of the relations with the foreign and domestic sides should be the internal fortification. Such a step would protect Iraq from the direction in which it is going now, a direction in which Iraq will become increasingly an arena for the conflicts of the others. This direction ought to be reversed. The good intentions at the Arab League General Secretariat in dealing with Iraq on their own will not enable us to do anything; we have many examples in history on the results of working through good intentions if the countries have no strong political will. I would like to remind you of brother Lakhdar Brahimi in Lebanon; within the framework of the Arab League he could not do anything in Lebanon until after the Casablanca summit, which gave him this mechanism. He was given full authority by the Arab countries through a committee consisting of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the late King Fahd, the late King Hasan, and President Chadli Bendjedid. I believe that after the formation of this committee, the Lebanese problem needed only some nine months of work by Lakhdar Brahimi to put an end to the civil war. Iraq is more than ten-fold more complicated than Lebanon; there are the international dimensions, the nature of the neighborhood, and the Iraqi sides themselves. All this requires more time and more resources, especially political will and negotiations with others. Not a single week passed without an Australian or an Italian coming to me because he wanted to get acquainted with the situation in Iraq; as for the Arabs, none of them came, and none of them asked, except for a request from the UAE that I received about a week ago.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that there is a problem in answering the question: with whom should we talk in Iraq, whether in the government or in the factions? Perhaps there are some symbols and factions that hinder the dialogue?

(Lamani) This is a problem because of the diversity of interests, programs, and factions. There are some 400 or 500 political parties registered in Iraq, the number of membership of 99 percent of which does not exceed three. I was asked to arrange some meetings between the Muslim Scholars Association and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Sheikh Harith al-Dari agreed on condition that I would attend these meetings; however, after I left Iraq they said that they would not establish any contacts with the US ambassador.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think that now there are symbols of the political action in Iraq who have an appointment with a historic moment to achieve real peace in their country?

(Lamani) With extreme regret, what I witnessed is that every side does not understand what is happening. This is despite the fact that there are respectable personalities on the political scene. I have seen very highly qualified individuals on all sides, and they personally suffer. However, on every side there are factions, and in every faction of these there are factions. For instance, the ages of most of the members of the militias range between 17 and 18 years. I remember when one person was killed after it was said that he was captured trying to blow up the mausoleum of an imam, he was beheaded, and his head was given to the children to play soccer with for a number of hours! How would this generation grow up witnessing such scenes? There are militias that stop people in the streets and kill on the basis of identity, despite the fact that intermarriages between Sunni and Shiite families are not less than 30 percent, which is a large ratio.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) There is going to be an Arab summit. As the only Arab political official who lived within Baghdad for a year, what is the cure you can put forward to this summit?

(Lamani) There are some broad lines. The first thing is to change the way of dealing with Iraq. Since 2003 until now there has not been an Arab way of dealing with the Iraqi situation, and I am afraid that the (Arab) presence there is just in order to counter another side. So far there is no Arab conviction in drawing up a strategy to deal with the Iraqi situation. It is difficult to establish such a conviction, because it requires looking at Iraq, with its entire ethnic and sectarian mosaic, as an integral part of the region. The matter not only requires the official Arab action, but also it is imperative to act at all levels.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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