IRAQ: 'We can show that democracy is possible'
Karin Palmquist

Iraq's transitional government is nearing its two-month anniversary in office. sat down with Rend Al-Rahim, Iraq's ambassador to Washington to ask her about the progress on the ground, and prospects for the future. Are you optimistic that the transition government can guide Iraq to successful national elections?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: I am very positive and optimistic about the conflict. The transition is perceived by the Iraqis as a real transition. The government of Iraq took the lead even before the handover of power, presenting itself as the Government of Iraq.

We had a landmark National Assembly meeting of 1300 Iraqis from August 15 to 19. The interim government had planned this meeting as a milestone in the political transformation of Iraq. There have been many challenges [to hold this meeting], not least the security challenge of 1300 leaders from around the country getting together under one roof for a meeting. This meeting was held with no security disruptions. It was meant to be a thousand people, but it was increased to 1300 to make sure that every Iraqi social group, every political group that wanted to participate had the opportunity to do so.

The goal of the conference was to elect a 100-member National Assembly. The 100-member Assembly elected is extremely representative of Iraq and has brought in many, many new faces from around Iraq - representatives of different parties, professional associations and tribal groups. Meeting this milestone was very important. What it tells us is that if we have the will we can meet other milestones as well.

This is a country that has suffered from a totalitarian regime for 35 years, from extreme forms of oppression. People who have been deprived of a voice can now come out. This government is a no-nonsense government. They are very focused on making this period successful. I am confident that we will succeed. What do you think is the general Iraqi view of Muqtada Al Sadr and his Mahdi Army?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: Iraqis, particularly the people of Najaf, are very tired of the Mahdi Army and Muqtada Al Sadr. The Mahdi Army is holding Najaf hostage. It has disrupted the life and livelihood of the citizens of Najaf. People have had to not only close their shops and discontinue their businesses - they've had to flee their homes.

Additionally, the Shrine of Ali is an important sacred site for all Muslims and particularly for Shiites. People are extremely unhappy with the Mahdi Army for using it. The Mahdi Army moved in very quickly with all their arms. They are not picking a safe haven; they are using it as their battlefield. Both in public and in private, people of Iraq are very tired of this lawlessness. The abuse of the Mahdi Army is breathtaking.

Referring to an incident on August 24, the ambassador added: There are stories of the Mahdi Army kidnapping at least one senior cleric. They went into his house and kidnapped him and they went into the houses of two other clerics and threatened them.
There are allegations that the Mahdi Army fighters have been caught with treasures from the shrine. For all Muslims, especially for Shiites, that is sacrilege. Is there a growing consensus opposing the foreign fighters on Iraqi soil, and how do Iraqis want them to be dealt with?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: The one thing that Iraqis want is to be left alone and sort out their own future. I think there is a wide opposition in Iraq to outsiders, and this was exemplified in Fallujah. It seems this activity has been contained. Has the tide been turned?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: I can tell you in what way the tide has turned. This government is serious about security and people are rallying around the government and they are coming forward to work with the police force and the National Guard, and they are cooperating with the government against these armed forces. That is a very important turning of the tide.

We want to have good neighborly relations. We want cooperation. But we want you to help us stop external interference in our internal affairs. We wouldn't have had this kind of balance in our government, this political and social balance, if it hadn't been for the US-led liberation.

We are still a fledging nation. Our army and our national guard are still being built. Our border security is still incomplete. We still need the assistance of the multinational forces. This also includes their assistance in training and equipping our forces. The more we build our capacity the less we need the multinational forces. This won't happen overnight.

We need the international community, and at the forefront the United States, for reconstruction. In Madrid in October of 2003, $13 billion was pledged to Iraq [by different countries]. So far, only $1 billion has been made available. There is a follow-up conference in Tokyo in October. We need support. We still need the support of the international community in extinguishing our debt. It always takes time. No one expects a car to accelerate from start to 100 miles an hour in one minute. No but you still need some gas in the tank. How long do you think a major military presence will be needed on the ground?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: It's impossible to say. It depends on so many factors. The sooner Iraq can guard its own security the better. If Iraq could turn around and establish a democracy in the Middle East, it would have an enormous impact on the region. How do you see the impact Iraq could have?

Ambassador Al-Rahim: We should never loose sight of the vast majority's desire to establish a democracy in Iraq. This is a process, an evolutionary process. This is what Iraqis want and this should remain our goal. What we do in terms of development of political procedures should be according to the aspirations of the Iraqi people.

This is indeed revolutionary in the region. In the current composition of our government and National Assembly we have already revolutionized. We have presented a new model in the region. Our meeting to elect our National Assembly was a national debate of a kind the Arab world has not seen.

Since March 8, we have a modern bill of rights, which is unprecedented in the region. Iraq will not be exporting democracy. We're not on a messianic mission. We have enough to do in our own country. What we can do is show that democracy is possible and to break the notion that the Muslim world, or the Arab world, is unreceptive to democracy.

Biography of Rend Al-Rahim

Rend Al-Rahim was raised in Iraq and received her education in Europe. She left Iraq with her family in 1978 and settled in the United States in 1981. From 1974 until 1991, she worked as an international banker and in the private investment field in Europe, the Middle East and USA.

In 1991 Ms. Al-Rahim co-founded, with other Iraqi expatriates, the Iraq Foundation, a non-profit organization for the promotion of democracy and human rights in Iraq. She worked as the executive director of the Iraq Foundation from October 1991 to November 2003. In November 2003, she was appointed by the Iraqi Governing Council as the Iraqi Representative to the USA.

Ms. Al-Rahim has published several articles on Iraq and contributed to several books and other publications on Iraq. She is the co-author of The Arab Shi'a, published in 2000.

She has testified before Congressional Committees and participated as analyst on Iraq on national television and radio programs.

Ms. Al-Rahim holds degrees from the Universities of Cambridge and the Sorbonne.