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What Do We Owe Iraq?

Don't give up on building new society, says Iraq's ambassador.

Terry Glavin 2 Nov

Terry Glavin writes his column 'Dissent' for The Tyee twice a month.

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An Iraqi voter.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing; freedom soon will come.
Then we'll come from the shadows.

-- Leonard Cohen, `The Partisan.'

When Howar Ziad moved to Canada two years ago, he allowed himself the hope that maybe, one day, he might get to meet Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian poet. On December 8, 2004, Ziad admitted this to Adrienne Clarkson, who was Canada's Governor General at the time. Clarkson told Ziad she'd see what she could do.

The reason Ziad happened to be in Ottawa chatting with the Governor General at Rideau Hall, almost immediately after arriving in Canada, was that his first duty in his new job was to present his credentials to her in order to be formally recognized as His Excellency Howar Ziad, the Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq.

During a conversation the other day, Ziad told me a number of things that would likely come as a surprise to Canadians, especially those who sincerely believe that Iraq's transitional government is merely the puppet of a sinister U.S. neoconservative-imperialist plot to take over the Arab world. For starters: "I was always on the left, and even now I consider myself left and progressive."

Vigils of solidarity

Back in the 1980s, Ziad was well known in international-solidarity circles. A graduate of the Jesuit-run Baghdad College, then Oxford, then the London School of Economics, Ziad could be commonly found at the regular vigils on Trafalgar Square, in front of South Africa House, Pretoria's apartheid-state embassy in London.

What the people keeping those vigils shared was an understanding of the importance of solidarity, and the importance of not forgetting. Specifically, they shared a simple but firm resolve that they would not allow the world to forget about a certain freedom fighter by the name of Nelson Mandela who'd been locked away in a South African prison cell a quarter of a century before.

By the late 1990s, Ziad was at the United Nations in New York, where his job was to prevent the world from forgetting an entire people, the ancient and long-suffering Kurds, whose homelands traverse the mountains at the headwaters of the Tigris River. Ziad's own father, Mohammed, had become a Kurdish freedom fighter, but unlike Mandela, Mohammed would never live to know real freedom. He died in Iran, only five days after fleeing across the mountains.

Ziad would not comment on this, but there is a certain irony in his Canadian posting. It would be hard to find a more articulate, progressive social democrat among the legions of diplomats in Ottawa, and Ziad isn't just a diplomat, he's a senior advisor to Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is the New Democratic Party's affiliate in Iraq, through the Socialist International. The irony is that the only national party leader in Ottawa who has not taken the time to meet Ziad is the NDP's Jack Layton.

'What should be done now?'

During our conversation, Ziad, now 65, spoke at length about the importance of solidarity, and about the folly of forgetting.

He was sympathetic to Canada's difficult, last-minute decision to abstain from the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq -- "It's water under the bridge," Ziad said -- because there are other things worth remembering about Canada's' response at the time.

Canada was not indifferent to Iraqi suffering, and was not oblivious to the fact that the Baathist obscenity there was going to have to be uprooted eventually, and when the regime fell, the Canadian government set aside more than $300 million to train Iraqi police, help out with elections and fund health, education and humanitarian-aid projects.

These things should not be forgotten, but they are paltry contributions, and the matter of activist solidarity remains. And that leaves us to face the most important question. Ziad asked it himself. "The question is, what should be done now?"

Ever since the bombs started falling on Baghdad, that's the only question that has really mattered, and it's also the question that the mainstream "anti-war" movement has got wrong, by any standard recognizable in the traditional perspective of the progressive left. "Troops out" offers no effective solidarity with pro-democracy Iraqis, and offers far greater advantage to the "resistance" fighters who behead Kafirs, put bombs in mosques and assassinate trade union leaders.

"Troops out" was wrong from the start because, as all the facts now show, it didn't make a difference. It will be the right answer eventually, of course, the way a stopped clock is right, twice a day. Canada was right to say no to joining the American-led invasion, given the circumstances. And the hour will come when the circumstances will be right for the Yanks and the others to go home.

But that hour, Ziad argues, has still not arrived.

Body counts and elections

The Iraqi people have made extraordinary efforts to build a functioning democracy from the ruins of Saddam's butcher shop. They have seen revolutionary progress in two successful national elections and the popular ratification of a new constitution. This is so, despite the horrific body count and the long litany of abject failures that have confounded the Americans and their allies in Iraq.

But what's more instructive in making sense of the ongoing agony in Iraq, Ziad said, is a close look at the one post-invasion strategy that's been perhaps most successful. It's the strategy prosecuted by Saddam's Baathists.

After retreating into the collapsed-order void that followed the 2003 invasion, the Baathists successfully regrouped, and in league with al-Qaida they proceeded to throw Iraqi society into turmoil by subjecting not only the invasion forces, but all pro-democracy Iraqis, to terror and mayhem.

So far, the plan's worked. Decades of totalitarianism and war had brutalized Iraqis, leaving them fearful of one another, divided and vengeful. Now, there are roughly two dozen heavily armed religious sects, factions and jihadist groups in Iraq, variously and alternately at war with one another, with the Iraqi government and with the U.S.-led coalition forces.

There is peace in Iraqi Kurdistan, because when their liberation came, the Kurds, nominally protected after the 1990-91 Gulf War, were ready. The majority Shiites might have been ready, but at the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. bowed to "peace now" pressure and abandoned the Shiite patriots who had risen up against Saddam. Now, the Shiite militias depend mainly on Iran for money and guidance, and the Baathists, deeply ensconced within the Sunni "resistance," are sustained mainly by their nostalgia for the brutal hegemony they once asserted over everyone else.

Ziad said these are not circumstances that will be improved by having U.S. soldiers quickly pack up and leave.

"The first thing is we must defeat the terrorists and the Baathists," he said. "Without that, we won't get anywhere. We have no guarantee that what we are doing in Iraq will be successful, but it is worth fighting for it. The alternative is to hand over the country to an alliance of the Baathist fascists and al-Qaida."

'School for the future'

But what's the role for progressives, then, outside Iraq?

"People should support Iraqi civil society institutions," Ziad said. "Let the Iraqis determine their own future in their own way, but also engage Iraqis. Let them see what has happened in Canada, what a great country Canada is, in all its multicultural and diverse society, and how they are resolving their differences in a peaceful way."

Ziad pointed to the recently announced $60-million joint venture between Canada's federal government and the Aga Khan Foundation, establishing a new Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, as an institution that could be of particular help to Iraqis.

"That would be a great school for the future of Iraq," he said.

Ziad also spoke highly of the British organization Labour Friends of Iraq, which builds international support for Iraqi trade unions. "What we need is that kind of support, frankly, because the terrorists are actually targeting trade unionists."

But support like that is difficult to muster in an age when peace rallies have taken the place of effective and meaningful internationalist solidarity, and a reflexive anti-Americanism has mutated into a surrogate for analysis. Where does that all end up?

"Well, you look at issues purely through that prism, and it leads to supporting fascist theological movements and people who never think about the rights of women, or civil liberties, or trade unions," Ziad said.

This state of affairs on the left isn't completely unprecedented, though. Ziad cited the Oxford Union's infamous "pacifist" resolution of 1933, widely held to have ultimately encouraged the Nazis to rampage across Europe, as well as the left's "anti-war" phase during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

"But it is strange that the left has given away the moral high ground to the right, as far the morality in international affairs. That shouldn't be," Ziad said, "because the status quo does not serve progressive forces in the world."

Still, one lives in hope. Ziad does, anyway.

"If you know Leonard Cohen," he said, "tell him I'd be delighted to meet him."

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