America had its civil war. Why expect freedom to come easy to Iraq?
BY NOURI AL-MALIKI
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq–Americans keen to understand the ongoing struggle for a new Iraq can be guided by the example of their own history. In the 1860s, your country fought a great struggle of its own, a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives but ended in the triumph of freedom and the birth of a great power. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signaled the destruction of the terrible institution of slavery, and the rise of a country dedicated, more than any other in the world of nation-states then and hence, to the principle of human liberty.
Our struggle in Iraq is similar to the great American quest, and is perhaps even more complicated. As your country was fighting that great contest over its unity and future, Iraq was a province of an Ottoman empire steeped in backwardness and ignorance. A half a century later, the British began an occupation of Iraq and drew the borders of contemporary Iraq as we know them today. Independence brought no relief to the people of our land. They were not given the means of political expression, nor were they to know political arrangements that respected their varied communities.
Under the Baath tyranny, Iraqis were to endure a brutal regime the likes of which they had never known before. Countless people were put to death on the smallest measure of suspicion. Wars were waged by that regime and our national treasure was squandered without the consent of a population that was herded into costly and brutal military campaigns. Today when I hear the continuous American debate about the struggle raging in Iraq, I can only recall with great sorrow the silence which attended the former dictator’s wars.
It is perhaps true that only people who are denied the gift of liberty can truly appreciate its full meaning and bounty. I look with admiration at the American debate surrounding the Iraq war, and I admire even those opinions that differ from my own. As prime minister of Iraq I have been subjected to my share of criticism in that American debate, but I harbor no resentment and fully understand that the basic concerns of Americans are the safety of their young people fighting in our country and the national interests of their society. As this American debate goes on, I am guided and consoled by the sacred place of freedom and liberty in the American creed and in America’s notion of itself.
War being what it is, the images of Iraq that come America’s way are of car bombs and daily explosions. Missing from the coverage are the great, subtle changes our country is undergoing, the birth of new national ideas and values which will in the end impose themselves despite the death and destruction that the terrorists have been hell-bent on inflicting on us. Those who endured the brutality of the former regime, those who saw the outside world avert its gaze from their troubles, know the magnitude of the change that has come to Iraq. A fundamental struggle is being fought on Iraqi soil between those who believe that Iraqis, after a long nightmare, can retrieve their dignity and freedom, and others who think that oppression is the order of things and that Iraqis are doomed to a political culture of terror, prisons and mass graves. Some of our neighbors have made this struggle more lethal still, they have placed their bets on the forces of terror in pursuit of their own interests.
When I became prime minister a year and a half ago, my appointment emerged out of a political process unique in our neighborhood: Some 12 million voters took part in our parliamentary elections. They gave voice to their belief in freedom and open politics and their trust imposed heavy burdens on all of us in political life. Our enemies grew determined to drown that political process in indiscriminate violence, to divert attention from the spectacle of old men and women casting their vote, for the first time, to choose those who would govern in their name. You may take this right for granted in America, but for us this was a tantalizing dream during the decades of dictatorship and repression.
Before us lies a difficult road–the imperative of national reconciliation, the drafting of a new social contract that acknowledges the diversity of our country. It was in that spirit that those who drafted our constitution made provisions for amending it. The opponents of the constitution were a minority, but we sought for our new political life the widest possible measure of consensus. From the outset, I committed myself to the principle of reconciliation, pledged myself to its success. I was determined to review and amend many provisions and laws passed in the aftermath of the fall of the old regime, among them the law governing de-Baathification. I aimed to find the proper balance between those who opposed the decrees on de-Baathification and others who had been victims of the Baath Party. This has not been easy, but we have stuck to that difficult task.
Iraq is well on its way to passing a new oil law that would divide the national treasure among our provinces and cities, based on their share of the population. This was intended to reassure those provinces without oil that they will not be left behind and consigned to poverty. The goal is to repair our oil sector, open the door for new investments and raise the standard of living of Iraqi families. Our national budget this year is the largest in Iraq’s history, its bulk dedicated to our most neglected provinces and to improving the service sector in the country as a whole. Our path has been made difficult by the saboteurs and the terrorists who target our infrastructure and our people, but we have persevered, even though our progress has been obscured by the scenes of death and destruction.
Daily we still fight the battle for our security. We lose policemen and soldiers to the violence, as do the multinational forces fighting along our side. We are training and equipping a modern force, a truly national and neutral force, aided by our allies. This is against the stream of history here, where the armed forces have traditionally been drawn into political conflicts and struggles. What gives us sustenance and hope is an increase in the numbers of those who volunteer for our armed forces, which we see as proof of the devotion of our people to the stability and success of our national government.
We have entered into a war, I want it known, against militias that had preyed upon the weakness of the national government and in the absence of law and order in some of our cities, even in some of the districts in Baghdad, imposed their own private laws–laws usually driven by extremism and a spirit of vengeance. Some of these militias presented themselves as defenders of their own respective communities against other militias. We believe that the best way to defeat these militias is to build and enhance the capabilities of our government as a defender of the rights of our citizens. A stable government cannot coexist with these militias.
Our conflict, it should be emphasized time and again, has been fueled by regional powers that have reached into our affairs. Iraq itself is eager to build decent relations with its neighbors. We don’t wish to enter into regional entanglements. Our principle concern is to heal our country. We have reached out to those among our neighbors who are worried about the success and example of our democratic experiment, and to others who seem interested in enhancing their regional influence.
Our message has been the same to one and all: We will not permit Iraq to be a battleground for other powers. In the contests and ambitions swirling around Iraq, we are neutral and dedicated to our country’s right to prosperity and a new life, inspired by a memory of a time when Baghdad was–as Washington is today–a beacon of enlightenment on which others gazed with admiration. We have come to believe, as Americans who founded your country once believed, that freedom is a precious inheritance. It is never cheap but the price is worth paying if we are to rescue our country.
Mr. Maliki is prime minister of Iraq.