"I Did Not Want To Be a Collaborator"

Isam al-Khafaji, a former member of the Iraqi reconstruction council, explains his decision to resign ( July 28 2003, The Guardian)

On July 9, with deep sorrow, I submitted my resignation as a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council to US deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz. 

I did this with great sadness but, in doing so, I was able to leave Iraq with a clear conscience. If I had stayed any longer, I might not have been able to say that. I feared my role with the reconstruction council was sliding from what I had originally envisioned - working with allies in a democratic fashion - to collaborating with occupying forces. 

I had returned to Baghdad in May, a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with much hope after 25 years in exile from my country. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life to accept the invitation of the US government to return with more than 140 other Iraqis as part of this council to help with the postwar reconstruction and rehabilitation of ministries so that Iraq could eventually be turned over to a transitional government. 

My understanding of this council, which first reported to retired general Jay Garner, and is now under civil administrator Paul Bremer, was that we would work with Iraq's ministries, not as ministers, but in the background as advisers. Its goal was to restore Iraq's badly damaged infrastructure - the electricity, the hospitals, the water supplies and the transportation routes - at least to its pre-war state so that the country could be turned over to a transitional government. 

Though we council members came from all over the world, we are all Iraqis. I accepted the fact that we were a defeated country, and had no problem working with the US. But there seemed to be no interest on the part of the coalition in involving Iraqis as advisers on the future of their nation. Our role was very limited. Even reporters who visited us took note, writing that although the reconstruction council has an office within the presidential palace, there seems to be little done there apart from members reading their email. 

There was euphoria when Baghdad first fell, but the Americans acted with arrogance. While many Iraqis are relieved to see Saddam out, and accept the fact that the US is the only power than can secure some semblance of order, they now see it acting as an occupier. 

Sadly, the vision for a transitional government and democratic elections put forward by Wolfowitz seems to have been forgotten in the everyday pressures of postwar Iraq. Wolfowitz is just one player and there are many others on the ground in Iraq who do not share his vision. Even the soldiers here bluntly say they take their orders from their general, not from Bremer. 

Bitter disputes between the defence department and the state department continue to affect the situation. Even though Bremer has the formal authority within Iraq, it seems like each and every decision must go back to Washington, and we are the victims of indecision. 

Iraq is now in almost total chaos. No one knows what is going on. We're not talking here about trying to achieve an ideal political system. People cannot understand why a superpower that can amass all that military might can't get the electricity back on. Iraqis are now contrasting Saddam's ability to bring back power after the war in 1991 to the apparent inability of the US to do so now. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories. 

Now Bremer has established the Iraqi Governing Council. Sitting together to consider the future of Iraq are 25 representatives, hand-picked by the US-led coalition. The composition is not a bad one, but few of the members have substantial domestic constituencies. Whether the council is effective or not depends on whether its members are able to reach any consensus. I fear they will be played against one another. 

To succeed, they must take a unified position on issues and tell Bremer to go to Washington and say "this is what Iraqis want." Ultimately, the council must be prepared to say: "Give us full authority and we will ask for your advice when we need it." 

I am thus far the first and only member of the reconstruction council to resign. There may be others, though many will no doubt stay and hope for the best. For my part, when I think about the Iraqi people - how strong they are, how hard they work - I remain optimistic for my country in the medium term. 

There are many signs that Iraqis are working together, without serious tensions between ethnicities. All this is good news for a future Iraq. In the short term, however, I fear there will be more conflicts, run through with Iraqi and American blood. 

Isam al-Khafaji is a professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam and author of the forthcoming Tormented Births: Passages to Modernity in Europe and the Middle East. He was a member of the Democratic Principles Working Group convened by the US state department to discuss the future of Iraqi governance.

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